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Latino travelers report feeling discriminated against by border agents

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- In a perfect world, we would have the utmost confidence that every one of the 60,000-plus employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection arise each morning with the intention of performing his or her job in a manner that brings honor to the agency.

But many who have re-entered the United States lately have likely experienced CBP attitudes ranging from dim-eyed indifference to general disgruntlement that they left the country at all and now have the temerity to want back in.

Some travelers are even viewed suspiciously and asked increasingly alarming questions about their papers in a sharp tone of voice intended to convey that the person with the power literally doesn't like the look of them.

If you have any doubt such treatment is practically de rigueur for anyone with dark hair, brown eyes and complexions other than lily-white, look no further than a study titled, "'If They Notice I'm Mexican': Narratives of Perceived Discrimination from Individuals Who Crossed the U.S.-Mexico Border at Ports of Entry."

The paper, which was published this month in the peer-reviewed academic journal Deviant Behavior, details the experiences of nearly 1,000 college students -- most of who were Latino -- who reported having crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at a checkpoint at least once in their lifetime.

Nearly a third of the respondents, all of whom were crossing the border legally and with the proper documentation, reported feeling discriminated against because of their appearance, such as a dark complexion or what would be considered Latino physical features, clothing or personal possessions.

Another 29 percent felt discriminated against for crossing with a Mexican passport (versus a U.S. one), and nearly 14 percent of respondents felt they'd been discriminated against because of a perception that they had limited English proficiency or a foreign accent.

Feeling "discriminated against" included witnessing individuals with lighter skin being processed efficiently with minimal delays, while people with darker skin were treated suspiciously and subjected to extended questioning. Many also reported increased scrutiny, including physical searches -- anything from being patted down to having the inside of your mouth swabbed, as I've experienced myself, even on domestic flights. And some recounted searches of their personal possessions or intimidation through rude and dehumanizing behavior or degrading comments.

I, and most people of color I know, could talk all day about what we've personally witnessed at border crossings just in the last year. But here's just one anecdote from the study. A 19-year-old Latino respondent named Robert said that a CBP Office of Field Operations officer mocked his health issue, making "fun of my heart pulse, because I have a pretty fast pulse -- most of the time my hands are shaking. So when I told him about my health issue, he started to laugh and called other officers to come and see."

 

Even knowing full well that these are subjective personal testimonies from fallible humans with flawed recollections and their own personal biases, this research quantifies treatment that is widely believed to be real and factual -- the Government Accountability Office stated in a recent report that 20,333 misconduct cases (including criminal offenses) were brought against employees of CBP from 2014 through 2016.

And those perceptions very quickly become realities with far-reaching consequences.

"When people feel they are being treated poorly by law enforcement at the border, it erodes trust," said Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas and a co-author of the paper, along with researchers from his own school and Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas. "People talk, they share vicarious experiences and then you have this folklore that develops; ... if you create a lived experience that law enforcement is not fair, not on their side and not there to help and protect certain people, then these same people are likelier to not report crime and not go to law enforcement for help."

Piquero said that he and his fellow researchers aren't trying to create negative stereotypes of Border Patrol agents with their research -- "We know the majority are good, hardworking people doing a hard job." But he said that the few bad actors that make an intimidating or frightening impression on people need to be rooted out and retrained or reassigned -- for everyone's benefit.

"Public safety requires mutual respect," Piquero told me, "the more we can get people to have good relationships with those in law enforcement, the safer all of us will be."

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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