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Esther Cepeda / Politics

When Work is a Family Matter

CHICAGO -- Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent out an unusually cheerful press release: "Border Patrol Academy Graduates 1000th Class."

Forty-five newbies got through the Border Patrol Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Artesia, N.M., one of the most rigorous federal law enforcement academies in the nation. It has graduated nearly 41,000 students -- after months of coursework in marksmanship and horsemanship, studying immigration, customs and drug laws, plus firearm and physical training -- since offering its first session in 1934 in El Paso, Texas.

At the ceremony, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, "Today, we have the largest, best trained, and best equipped Border Patrol we've had at any time in our nation's history, and I'm proud of all the brave men and women who dedicate themselves to this important work."

More than a third of those brave men and women employed by the agency are Hispanic. And imagine the minefield a Hispanic employee of DHS has to walk through when attending family get-togethers where someone might give you the evil eye -- or a full-on tongue-lashing -- for working for "la migra."

Over the years I've interviewed Hispanic Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, immigration detention facility officers and related agency spokespersons. They've all smiled -- broadly, ruefully -- when asked "What's it like being Hispanic in your line of work? What does your family say? How do you respond to the inevitable 'how could you?'"

Answers range from "we don't talk about it" to "they're OK with it -- mostly," and "I don't care about those who call me a sellout or a traitor." Usually they have at least one horror story about a relative who refuses to be in the same room with them at holiday parties -- sometimes their relatives are immigrant activists. Many describe how they change the subject when someone tries bringing up contentious immigration-related subjects. Most say it's "usually not a problem."

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to ask a graduate of FLETC about how he deals with the emotionally thorny issue with family and friends. He told me that sometimes people bug their eyes out when they learn that anyone of Hispanic descent could work at an agency that has become synonymous with deporting Latin American immigrants, but that DHS is a great place to build a career.

The agency certainly provides lots of opportunities. According to DHS' Equal Employment Opportunity Program Status Report for fiscal year 2010, Hispanics were the largest minority group of employees, representing 19 percent of the workforce -- compared to Hispanics' 15 percent share of the civilian labor force. In U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Hispanics represent 35.8 percent of the total workforce.

For all the flack that DHS gets from immigrant and Hispanic advocacy groups, it is undeniable that the department provides good-paying professional jobs for Hispanics. All controversy aside, many of them get hired on without a high school diploma or college degree -- Border Patrol, for instance, is one of the few large law enforcement agencies that don't require them. That's quite a bridge to the American dream.

So congratulations to the 1,000th graduating class of the Border Patrol Academy. May your work be fulfilling, your careers exemplary -- and may your family leave politics out of the potlucks and the fiestas.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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