“The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds . . . Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” — Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sometimes get hurt while at work, but the local sector is nowhere near as dangerous as a recent TV news report implied. That’s what Neta found when we reviewed numbers used by Channel 5-KRGV to claim that the RGV is the riskiest place for agents in the country when it comes to being injured.
Workers in all law enforcement agencies get hurt on the job, of course, but most injuries are due to accidents, such as traffic mishaps and falls. Law enforcement officers also very occasionally get hurt by violence, which is what their families and the community worry about most. They worry in the RGV, too. But in fact, our local sector is nowhere near the worst of the nation’s 20 Border Patrol sectors when it comes to the rate of injuries caused by assaults. Instead, statistics show, the RGV comes in fourth on a list of sectors ranked by per capita rates of injuries caused by violence.
So why did KRGV’s report conclude that the RGV was at the top? And why is such a mistake dangerous for the community?
Valerie Gonzalez is the reporter who created the piece “Price of Patrol” for KRGV. She obtained an interesting body of data: medical compensation claims filed by Border Patrol agents who were injured while working all over the U.S. The data came from the Department of Labor and spanned over three years, from October 2014 to November 2017.
Gonzalez was right about one thing: the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector really does lead the nation in traumatic injury claims for that time period. RGV agents filed 2,473 such claims out of 11,591 total.
The problem is the injuries vary widely by type and cause, from “weather exposure” to “dog bite” to “handling manual equipment,” to getting shot. Lumping a shooting together with a sunburn, as Gonzalez did, risks misleading the community. That’s because when it comes to discussions about the Border Patrol, most people assume that agents are especially susceptible to being attacked… by immigrants. The idea that immigrants are exceptionally violent is part of a xenophobic narrative pumped out not only by the ultra-right but also by the Border Patrol itself. Thus, statistics about Border Patrol injuries need to be carefully examined and interpreted. That is what Neta did.
To begin the analysis, we separated injuries caused by violence from those resulting from accidents and illness. Legally, the violent incidents are deemed assaults, and we were interested in them because alleged assaults are what people generally focus on when they think about Border Patrol agents being hurt while working. We looked at the fiscal year 2017, which began October 1, 2016, and ended September 30, 2017, for claims of injuries from what the DOL calls “violence” and “enemy action.” We found 125 such claims in the entire country. (Not all of them were validated by the DOL). The number roughly tracks FBI data for Border Patrol agents injured due to assaults in 2017: their figure is 103.
But of all the assault injuries recorded in the DOL data, only 21 were filed from the RGV. Meanwhile, Tucson had 33 claims and San Diego had 32.
At first glance, these numbers might be interpreted as putting the RGV in third place nationally. But the RGV is actually even farther down the list, according to another calculation: the per capita injury rate. The RGV has more agents than San Diego, for instance. When one divides the number of RGV injuries by RGV agents, the per capita injury rate is lower in RGV than in San Diego, Tucson, and Laredo.
Reporting 21 violence-related injuries for 3,130 agents, the RGV sector had slightly less than seven injuries per thousand agents. That ranks it not anywhere near the most dangerous sector. Instead, it’s the fourth most dangerous, behind San Diego, with 10 injuries per thousand; Tucson, with about 9; and Laredo, with 8.
But KRGV’s Gonzalez did not calculate per capita rates. Instead, she simply looked at raw numbers. To do so paints a very inaccurate picture. It’s like saying that if New York City, population 8 million, had 200 murders in a year, it would be more dangerous than a town of 10,000 that had 199 murders per year.
Splashing green paint to this inaccurate picture, KRGV gave the Border Patrol a platform to showcase their military-style gear, on a panic ride down the Rio Grande on a “vessel” that included a white cross at the front of their lanchas. Agents told of how—an unspecified—“they” use slingshots and rifles to hurt the officers. The ride-along footage ended dramatically, as the boat crew received a call regarding “a group of about 20 people,” as Gonzalez told viewers, which agents responded to with “beams of light…pointed into the thickets of brush…not knowing what to expect next.”
Chris Cabrera is a spokesperson for the Border Patrol’s labor union. He is also a former host of the union’s Breitbart-sponsored podcast, “The Green Line,” and a guest on InfoWars. Without delineating this ultra-right wing background, Gonzalez likewise offered him a platform, which he used to demonize immigrants yet again, except instead of focusing on their “inherent violence” he—even more disturbingly—engaged in dehumanization by hygiene and contagion rhetoric, describing immigrants and refugees, who agents encounter, as disease-ridden, like he has in other interviews with Alex Jones’ “news” channel.
“A flu, strep throat, scabies, lice, chicken pox – you name it, it comes through here,” Cabrera told KRGV. And our agents are the ones processing them, taking them into custody and dealing with them. So with that, you’re going to have the exposure and ultimately the injury or illness,” he explained to Gonzalez.
With dehumanization and fear-mongering such as this, it would not be surprising if Border Patrol agents themselves were the cause of injuries–to immigrants. In November of last year, in federal court in Laredo, a young, Guatemalan man who resisted arrest while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border near Laredo had a physical altercation with Border Patrol agent Steven Yackanin. The agent claimed that Eliseo Luis-Garcia punched him in the torso, attempting to elbow and kick him as well. According to medical records presented as evidence in trial, Yackanin’s injuries amounted to a diagnosis of tennis elbow.
Luis-Garcia was physically much smaller than agent Yackanin, and he was acquitted in February of this year. Border Patrol agent’s claim of injury due to assault was not validated in court. But acquittals are not accounted for in DOL data. We found a violent injury claim in the Laredo sector dating to the time of the incident that in all likelihood was Yackanin’s DOL claim. That happened in the fiscal year 2018. How many of the 125 assaults reported in FY 2017 also resulted in acquittals?
Recent investigations by The Intercept have shown that Customs and Border Protection has grossly and falsely inflated its assault statistics since 2016 and that, in fact, when considering fatalities and injuries, “working as a Border Patrol agent is much safer than working as a local police officer or sheriff’s deputy,” as shown by the FBI LEOKA.
But this wasn’t the narrative portrayed on KRGV. Instead, local, mass media has taken part in the dehumanization of Central American refugees before and during the intensified repression of “zero-tolerance.” Apparently, the “green light” given by the current administration to crack-down on immigrants and refugees was accompanied by a green light to mislead the public about it, as we also saw in the repeated changing of stories about Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez’s murder in May.
We also know from history that dehumanization invariably precedes the worst crimes against humanity, as we witness CBP criminally deny refugee rights under international and U.S. law to asylum-seekers on our frontera. Still, with the consequences and effects resulting from “zero-tolerance,” a community resistance to these intolerable acts persists. Nonetheless, we must remember, as Brother Malcolm often reminded us, that when manipulated by the government, the capitalist/corporate media can make the victims of crime look guilty and the oppressors innocent.