U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. EFE
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. EFE

Don't judge Latinos who patrol the border until you walk in their shoes


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It's seen by some as just one of the many paradoxes you'll find at the border. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense that about half of the agents in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are Hispanic: It's a steady, government gig with decent benefits and pay in a geographic location with lots of bilingual Latinos looking to gain a foothold in America's middle class.

Ever since President Trump announced he wants to hire 5,000 more border patrol agents, Latinos interested in joining the agency have flocked to citizens academies sponsored by CBP, The Los Angeles Times reported last week. During these academies, participants tour the border and take part in interactive demonstrations on such topics as tracking, search and rescue, self-defense, firearms tactics and inspections for prohibited agricultural items.

A Times reporter followed a group of 11 people -- 10 of whom were Latino -- who were participating in the El Centro Sector Border Patrol citizens' academy.

This will be unsurprising to anyone who has traveled to the border lately. The last time I toured the Bridge of the Americas border crossing in El Paso, Texas, in 2015, it was difficult to find any CBP staff who weren't Hispanic. 

When asked what their friends and family think of their line of work, most of the border agents I've spoken with over the years have acknowledged being deft at changing the subject or enduring awkward conversations with grace. 

But Latino CBP employees also express a lot of pride in being able to create a life for themselves and their family. Not only do agents almost always note that the Department of Homeland Security -- which oversees the CBP -- is a great place to build a career, they'll also tell you it is one of the few employment opportunities left in this economy that don't require a bachelor's degree. 

Those of us who recoil at the indignities, injustices and, frankly, human-rights violations that happen at the border like to imagine that we'd never accept a job for a government bureau associated with work that has been so destructive to Latino communities and families. But a fair analysis reveals that many of us have a lot of privilege that allows us to not have to even consider that line of work.

Very few Latinos looking at CBP careers attended college and have enough social capital to launch a white-collar job search.

Even fewer CBP employees are like Francisco Cantu, a former Fulbright fellow, four-year border patrol agent and the author of "The Line Becomes a River." Cantu was skewered by protesters at his recent book readings for being a "sell-out" and profiting from recounting the tragic stories he witnessed and took part in while on the job.

Cantu left CBP to recuperate from the mental and emotional strain of policing the border and took refuge in completing his master of fine arts degree in nonfiction writing. He's certainly not the poster boy for the type of working-class people who typically turn to federal jobs to become the first in their family to own a home or to help finance college for the first in their family to attempt a degree. 

For Cantu, a third-generation Mexican-American, being accused of making his name off the pain of those he was policing on the border is surely unpleasant. But being a highly educated -- and now award-winning -- literary figure surely dulls some of the sting.

An acquaintance of mine works for CBP in spite of the bad rap -- and the occasional questions about his ethnic loyalties -- so he can have a comfortable home and send his kids to college, and so his wife can afford to take a public-school teaching job. 

In the end, Latinos will -- as they always do -- go through whatever painful personal travails are required to make it in this country, lending truth to the stereotype that they'll take any job to scratch out a better life for themselves and their families. 

It's easy to criticize such choices -- some people think there's a special place in hell for Latinos who play a part in the American government's border militarization complex -- but this, too, is a privilege of sorts and should come with a grain of empathy. 

Latinos should not add to the enmity their fellow officers on the border face until they've walked in their dusty, not-too-many-other-options shoes.

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