NOGALES, AZ — There are two types of people who become cops—or so they say. There are those who really truly want to protect and serve, and then there are those who just want a badge and a gun because the inherent power that comes with them. Military service isn’t much different. Some join out of patriotism and to serve their country, and some join so they can have an international license to kill.
I’m oversimplifying, I know. Just bear with me for a minute.
So, what kind of people join Border Patrol? Can we break down the forest green clad federal agents patrolling our borders into two groups as well? Probably. We could probably even break them down into dozens, if not hundreds of groups.
I’ve known a lot of BP agents and their families throughout my life. A lot of them have been generally great people. But among those green uniforms, there is a trend that occurs in even those with the “highest morals.”
Last week, my wife and I were heading north on the freeway. There’s a Border Patrol checkpoint that’s been established in one spot or another along Interstate 19 for my entire life. Going through there is just part of life here. How well I’m treated there usually depends on how well I’m dressed or how clean I keep my beard, but generally I’m treated pretty well.
Just to be clear, though—I’m white. Seriously. My legs are so white that looking directly at them has been known to cause blindness. I’m as Anglo-European looking as they come: blonde hair, blue eyes, and a well maintained dad-bod. My wife, however, is of Hispanic-Indigenous origin: long black hair, deep chocolate eyes, and lightly tinted skin.
We pull up to the checkpoint. The agent (of Hispanic origin himself) leans over and looks into the car. He’s not looking at me though. He’s glaring at my wife. We just looked back at him, waiting for him to wave us along. He didn’t. He just kept glaring at her, impatiently like he was waiting for her to say something.
Finally, my wife uttered the phrase he was waiting for: “U.S. Citizen.”
The agent responded with an annoyed grunt and a frustrated, and insincere “Thank you.” The agent then stood up straight and waved for the car behind us to come forward.
I took my foot off the break and eased on the gas. As we slowly pulled away, my wife and I said simultaneously, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I didn’t say “U.S. Citizen,” and this agent didn’t feel the need for me to do so. He didn’t care about my nationality at all. He saw my wife with her long black hair, chocolate eyes, and tinted skin and assumed that if either of us weren’t U.S. citizens, it would have to be her.
My wife was born and raised in the United States. So were both her parents. And her grandparents on both her parents’ sides. Both her dad and her grandpa served in the U.S. military. English was her first language, and even to this day her Spanish isn’t all that great. She’s one of the most patriotic people that I know.
Of course, when you go through a BP checkpoint, the agents can’t see all of that. They only have a few seconds to judge you and the only basis they have to judge you on is the way you look. That is literally the definition of racial profiling.
In a semi-unrelated incident from a year and a half ago, a young Guatemalan immigrant was struck by a Border Patrol agent driving a official BP Ford F-150. The agent, Matthew Bowen, 39, then lied about the incident in his official report to his superiors. Finally, in June 2018, six months after the incident, Bowen was placed on indefinite suspension after being indicted on charges of depriving the Guatemalan man of his civil rights under color of law and falsifying records. That’s a pretty serious offense all on its own.
With his trial just around the corner, some pretty damning information has come to light regarding Bowen’s personal viewpoint towards the immigrants he was tasked with detaining. Text messages with explicitly racist content have been recovered from Bowen’s phone that the prosecution hopes to use as proof of excessive force.
One unnamed person texted Bowen the same month as the incident saying, “Did you gas hiscorpse (sic) or just use regular peanut oil while tazing?? For a frying effect.”
In other messages, he used highly offensive terms for Guatemalans and other immigrants that I’d rather not repeat and referred to them as “mindless murdering savages” and “disgusting subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire.”
And then the icing on the aggressively racist cake was: “PLEASE let us take the gloves off Trump!”
Bowen’s own defense says that Bowen’s opinions of immigrants are actually “commonplace” in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which employs 4,200 agents. That’s FOUR THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED men and women working in an agency where aggressive, racist, and dehumanizing behavior is such a normal part of their job that it’s considered “commonplace.”
Now my wife wasn’t hit by a truck, or dragged away, or even called horrifyingly offensive names, but what happened to her at that checkpoint, however small it may seem to some, was glaring proof of the collective viewpoint Border Patrol agents have on anyone who even appears to be anything other than a red, white, and blue blooded citizen of the U.S. of A.
If this behavior really is “commonplace” as Bowen’s attorney claims, then there needs to be a deep internal investigation into the Tucson sector, if not the agency as a whole. The BP’s recruitment and hiring practices should be reassessed, and each and every agent should be required to submit to character evaluations.
I’m not saying that every agent in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector is a violent racist, but the trend can’t be ignored. Something needs to be done, and it needs to be done now. At what point do we need to arrive before we realize there’s a real problem? How many people need to be mistreated at checkpoints, hit by trucks, or shot in the back through fences before the federal government admits these are more than just a few isolated incidents?
Joseph Paul Wright is a freelancer journalist based in Nogales, Arizona. He tweets from @joewrightwrites.