Latinxs in La Migra: Why They Join and Why It Matters

Date01 September 2021
Published date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(3) 688 –702
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920933674
Today more than any other period in history, the front-
lines of federal immigration law enforcement agencies
reflect the demographics of the populations they police.
Across the agencies charged, Latinxs are over- represented
relative to their proportion of both the overall federal
workforce (8.6%) and general population (18.1%), with
Immigration and Customs Enforcement–Enforcement
and Removal Operations (ICE-ERO) at nearly 30 percent
Latinx, and Border Patrol nearly 50 percent (U.S. Office
of Personnel Management 2018). Once an exclusively
white enterprise—viewed for much of the twentieth cen-
tury as a foreign, occupying force in Latinx communities,
and referred to pejoratively as “La Migra” (Hernández
2010)—the last forty-five years have witnessed the emer-
gence of a much different immigration law enforcement
workforce: a new “La(tinx) Migra.”
Perhaps most surprising about this demographic shift
is that it has taken place in the context it has: amidst a
historically antagonistic relationship between immigra-
tion agencies and Latinx communities—a relationship
marred by violence and intimidation in which such agen-
cies have never solely policed migration, but indiscrimi-
nately blanketed Latinx communities in a shroud of
surveillance, policing, and battlefield technology (Dunn
1996; Sampaio 2015). Since the inception of the Border
Patrol, Latinx immigrants, residents, and citizens alike
have been targets of an organized state response to an
ostensible problem: the territorial presence of non-white
peoples in the United States (Hernández 2010).
Throughout the 1930s and 1950s, millions of Latinxs,
documented and otherwise, were rounded up in neighbor-
hood and worksite raids and expelled from the country
without due process (Calavita 2010; Nevins 2010).
These kinds of stories, however, are not merely relics
of early-twentieth century biases; contemporary exam-
ples of abusive operations by ICE and Border Patrol
abound in the form of continued nationwide-sweeps
(Constable 2016), neighborhood patrols (Minnis 2016),
and wide-reaching racial profiling across the borderlands
(Goldsmith et al. 2009). So aggressive have enforcement
actions within Latinx communities continued to be,
scholars have characterized them as an ongoing racial
project, designed to tie Latinx identity to criminality, and
933674PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920933674Political Research QuarterlyCortez
1University of Notre Dame, IN, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Cortez, Department of Political Science, University of Notre
Dame, 2060 Jenkins Nanovic Halls, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA.
Latinxs in La Migra: Why They Join and
Why It Matters
David Cortez1
Once an exclusively white enterprise, the last forty-five years have witnessed the emergence of a disproportionately
Latinx immigration law enforcement workforce. This article addresses the question of why Latinxs elect to work for
agencies that have systematically targeted the ethnic communities to which they belong. Where existing scholarship
has often implied Latinxs may self-select into immigration law enforcement due to a lack of identification with the
immigrant-experience, a dissociation with ethnic identity, and generally restrictionist immigration attitudes, this article
finds little empirical evidence to support such an assumption. Analysis of interviews with sixty-one Latinx Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents across Arizona, California, and Texas reveals, instead, Latinxs elect to work
in immigration law enforcement in service of economic self-interest and survival, with “money,” “a good job,” and
“benefits” cited as the primary motivation(s) behind applying for and accepting a job in immigration. This pattern holds
irrespective of individual agents’ levels of identification with the immigrant-experience and particular attitudes toward
immigration, and suggests a diversity in the demographics of immigration law enforcement agencies that extends
beyond mere race and ethnicity, to include a diversity of perspective and potential for empathy.
race/ethnicity, Latinx, identity, immigration, inequality

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