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On May 24, authorities in Arizona arrested three Maricopa County sheriff's employees for alleged involvement in migrant and drug smuggling; reportedly, they were able to use intelligence from the Sheriff’s office to guide smugglers through the greater Phoenix area. The arrested included a deputy in the human-smuggling unit.
What is noteworthy is that the arrests took place in the workplace of Joe Arpaio, the man who proclaims himself as “America’s toughest sheriff.” Lording over the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office since 1993, “Sheriff Joe,” as he is known by his supporters and detractors alike, has been perhaps the leading figure in making Arizona the anti-“illegal” immigrant laboratory of the United States that it is today. But even more remarkable is how regular such arrests have become—especially within the federal government’s enforcement apparatus.
From the perspective of the Department of Homeland Security, an alarmingly large number of federal agents have succumbed to smugglers’ bribery, and assisted or allowed passage to drug shipments and unauthorized migrants in exchange for money over the last several years. Raúl and Fidel Villareal, for example, helped to smuggle large numbers of migrants from Mexico and Brazil into the United States while working as Border Patrol agents in the San Diego Sector. (The two brothers quit the agency and fled in 2006 to Mexico, where they were eventually discovered, arrested, and extradited to the United States.) Until his retirement, Raúl served as the spokesperson for the Border Patrol in San Diego, and participated as an actor playing a smuggler in commercials for broadcast in Mexico warning would-be migrants of the dangers of trying to cross the boundary extralegally. Meanwhile, some Border Patrol agents have been caught dating, loving, and living with the very “illegals” they are charged with apprehending.
Or take the recent case of Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr. On Jan. 10, 2011, U.S. authorities arrested the Border Patrol agent, for allegedly harboring unauthorized immigrants at his home in the border community of San Ysidro, California. One of them was his twice-previously-deported father.
Such transgressions speak to, among other things, the depth and scale of transboundary ties, human frailty, and the difficulty—perhaps impossibility—of reducing human beings, given their complexity, to policing agents who fully follow the rules they are charged with upholding.
In 1999, U.S.-Mexico border scholar Josiah Heyman wrote that the growing enforcement apparatus in the U.S. Southwest had “militarized border society, where more and more people either work for the watchers, or are watched by the state.” The effect, he argued, was the production of “a society comprised substantially of ‘police and thieves’.”
In many ways, Heyman’s compelling words have become only increasingly true over the last decade or so. Yet, at the same time, what last week’s arrests in Maricopa County should remind us is that the boundary between guard and policed, lawmaker and lawbreaker is often blurry at best, and that people’s allegiances are multifaceted, fluid, and often up for grabs.
Following the arrest of Marcos Gerardo Manzano Jr., 26, some of his neighbors (almost all of whom are of Mexican descent) in the San Ysidro section of San Diego expressed sympathy for the Border Patrol agent. One, for example, said in reference to his father, “What could he do? He’s family.” For U.S. authorities, such devotion is the core of the problem: “His loyalty to his father was stronger than the loyalty to the Border Patrol,” one official stated condemningly, “and that's the sad reality of it.”
Perhaps reality is not as sad as some would have us think.