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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Matthew Cantor in Los Angeles

The anti-immigrant slur US border patrol tried to ban: ‘It reflects sanctioned violence’

The shoulder of an olive-green uniform showing a round patch with the words
A border patrol agent at the US-Mexico border on 17 May 2016, in San Diego, California. Photograph: Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images

More than 23 years ago, a US border patrol official issued a warning: slurs against people crossing the border would “not be tolerated”. Four years ago, the group’s parent agency issued guidance condemning one word in particular. Yet reporting last month found that it’s still being used in the agency regularly – in shockingly callous ways.

“Tonk” is used as slang for a migrant. As the reporter Roque Planas writes at HuffPost, the consensus is that it refers to the sound of a heavy object, like an agent’s flashlight, hitting a person’s head.

“I’ve never heard it being used in anything except a derogatory, mocking way by field agents when referring to migrants,” says Jacqueline Arellano of the non-profit Border Kindness, which provides migrants with supplies and legal services.

HuffPost’s reporting uncovered a raft of emails and text messages at the agency that use the word. Under the subject line “tonk”, an agent near Spokane, Washington, asked whether someone had “‘found’ that head wound with his maglite”. Another email featured a picture of a T-shirt emblazoned with the word under a picture of a flashlight. Yet another email ridiculed a colleague for “marrying a tonk” because “he can’t find a legal chick here”.

Vague claims have circulated that it’s an acronym for something along the lines of “traveler, origin not known”, but there’s no clear source for this assertion.

The word is unfamiliar to most Americans – but not to advocates like Arellano. “When I first heard the slur, it was actually being used by a four-star agent, who, literally his only job duty was to operate as search and rescue,” she says. “He casually used the term to describe what he does and who he serves.” Growing up along the border, she says, she would hear agents using the term. And “when I have heard people push back on its usage and claim that it’s a slur, I haven’t heard any denial”.

The word’s usage among border patrol agents, and its unfamiliarity outside immigration circles, suggest it functions at least in part as jargon or in-group language, common in every line of work. But the fact that the average person doesn’t know the word doesn’t rob it of its power.

Because the daily work of law enforcement is hidden from the rest of the world, its terminology can become abusive, according to Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. Words like this serve “to belittle or dehumanize other groups and to separate us from them”.

That aligns with how sociolinguists – who study how society and culture shape communication – say language works. “Everything that we say is telling the world about who we are,” says Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Pomona College in southern California.

Many people working in immigration enforcement probably avoid the word, Holliday says: “So what you’re doing if you’re an agent who’s using this term is saying kind of explicitly to your colleagues: I’m a person who harbors a lot of resentment towards these people.”

Kelly Wright, a sociolinguist and lexicographer at Virginia Tech, says that “tonk” has referred to a thumping sound for a century, while she sees “no evidence” to suggest the word is an acronym. The fact that the word echoes physical harm against a specific group, she writes in an email, “reflects the fully sanctioned, accepted, understood, unpunished, and perhaps even celebrated nature of the violence it describes”.

“This is just one of the many examples that we have in which agents use their language to violate migrants,” agrees Lilian Serrano, the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which advocates for human rights. “It starts with dehumanizing migrants and it ends with putting their lives in danger.”

Given the potency of this language, could cracking down on it help limit the harm it causes? Officials have attempted bans: “The terms ‘wetback’, ‘tonk’, etc. will not be tolerated,” said the chief patrol agent for the McAllen sector in Texas in a 2000 staff email cited by HuffPost. “Any deviation from these instructions will be considered grounds for counseling and/or disciplinary action.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection, the border patrol’s parent agency, said: “The use of any derogatory language towards others is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. No one feels that more than those who wear the uniform.” The statement added that alleged misconduct was “referred immediately to CBP’s office of professional responsibility, and the agency cooperates fully with any criminal or administrative investigations that may result”.

But the HuffPost emails show insiders haven’t stopped using the word.

A ban is just “1% of what needs to be done”, says Holliday, and it offers officials an easy way out. “Banning words or policing language is a way people from on high can sort of feel good about making a change that doesn’t do anything,” she says. “It’s Whac-A-Mole. New words will come up, and the sentiment remains.”

Serrano, of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, raises the question of whether such bans have any teeth. “Even when there’s proof that agents are in direct violation of directives, they face no consequences,” she says.

The language is an obvious symptom of a much bigger problem. “Ultimately, what we want is not to create an index of words that the border patrol agents are not allowed to use,” Serrano says. “What we should be addressing is the culture that accepts the racism, that accepts the violence, that dehumanizes migrants – and part of that is a disciplinary system that brings accountability to the agents and transparency for those of us who have to interact with them.”

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