WASHINGTON, D.C. — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not a department that you’d expect a lot of Latinos to want to work in. In fact, many Latinos actively oppose it and are leading a movement to abolish ICE, which they see as an irredeemably racist institution.
Yet nearly 30 percent of ICE agents, and about 50 percent of Border Patrol agents in the U.S. are Latino. According to data Univision received from ICE in 2017, Latino ICE agents outnumber Black agents 2 to 1, and Asian agents by 4 to 1. White agents outnumber Latino agents by nearly 3 to 1.
Now, a new study looks at why Latino ICE and border agents join in the first place.
University of Notre Dame professor David Cortez interviewed over 60 ICE and Border Patrol agents as part of his research and asked how they found themselves in that job, and how they felt about it.
Most of the agents did not say they joined because they didn’t identify with their Latinidad, or because they held anti-immigrant views. Instead, they joined because they wanted a stable job, and didn’t see many other ways of getting one.
One Latino agent Cortez spoke with for the study, Claudio “CJ” Juarez, said this about why he began working in immigration enforcement decades ago:
“No—because I was literally starving. [laughing] I ate a lot of beans and rice in those days, let me tell you, man . . . But, really, I wish I could say that it was idealistic, or . . . more sexy—but it really was as simple as they were the first ones that called me, and I jumped on the first opportunity.”
Another Latina ICE agent that Cortez interviewed, Sylvia Newman, answered the question this way:
“I was a single parent—that’s why I got this job . . . I had just gotten divorced and had a two-year-old and a three-year-old; and I needed a job with a little more security . . . So, I started applying . . . I just went to all the federal agencies, to see—you know, like—[what] the qualifications were . . . and I just started applying—and then [the ICE application] started going through.”
Cortez noted the agents sought work in immigration enforcement for similar reasons to why many immigrants leave Latin America and try to come to the US. They were looking for a better life.
Their economic struggles are the same stories that many US Latinos face in finding stable income. Latinos make up 18 percent of the US population, but they account for 27 percent of people living in poverty, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
There’s a long history of controversy around Latino immigration enforcement agents. Latinos experience high rates of deportation, and agents with Spanish-language skills and cultural competency are seen as a valuable asset for ICE.
“It’s good because they speak the language,” David Marín, Field Office Director for ICE ERO in Los Angeles told Univisión in a 2017 interview. “It’s also a challenge because we’re regularly asked, ‘Why are you deporting your own people?’”
Last year a Latina border patrol officer in Texas went viral under the nickname, “ICE Bae.” Some praised her online as a “Latina hero,” but many others criticized her, saying her parents should disown her for working as an immigration enforcement officer.
In response, Kiara Cervantes a.k.a. “ICE Bae” responded to criticisms by saying she was thankful for her career.
WOW I am in awe. Thank you all for the support! My job is so hectic at this moment but I am grateful. I love protecting my country! 🇺🇸🇺🇸❤️ And I love my supporters!
— Kiara C (@kiarace24) July 16, 2019
Some agents Cortez spoke to felt conflicted about their roles as Latino ICE and border patrol officers, and at least one of his interviewees has since quit his job because of his concerns. But in an interview with Latino Rebels, Cortez said, “Even among those who struggle, and who find this tension between who they are and what they do, the economic security offered by these positions puts pressure on them to stay [in the job] and creates more internal conflict.”
The internal conflict led them to ask themselves moral questions questions about, “who the people are that they’re dealing with, and really kind of beginning to put themselves in the shoes of the migrant’s encounter, and wrestling with, ‘What if this was me? Or what if this was my mother?’” Cortez said. “It’s a unique experience that non-Latino agents in this experience aren’t having to wrestle with.”
Cortez told Latino Rebels that one of his reasons for wanting to do this research was to speak to communities like the one he grew up in in Brownsville, Texas. As he interviewed border and ICE agents, he said he wasn’t necessarily surprised to hear that financial security was a big factor in why they joined.
“This is kind of a known quantity in the border area,” Cortez said. “Because of the ubiquity of this experience, a lot of us who grew up in the area have a lot of primos, or cuñados that are doing this. And we know them. We know who they are when they’re outside of their uniforms.”
Through this research, he hoped to help folks “understand these people a little bit better, and understand the Latino experience in the United States a little bit better.”
Cortez is currently working on a book about Latino immigration enforcement agents, and tweets at @_FRONTERAS_.
Ana Lucía Murillo is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the 2020 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She tweets from @analuciamur.