In 2005, Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean shot a person who was fleeing from them along the Texas-Mexico border, then attempted to cover it up by destroying evidence and lying to investigators. They were later convicted by a jury on multiple counts including assault with a deadly weapon and civil rights violations and sentenced to 11 and 12 years respectively. The incident is but one of countless immigration-related abuses over the years, and one of the most notorious that continues to haunt the communities all along our southern border. This week, that 15-year-old wound was ripped open as President Trump issued a full presidential pardon to both. Both had their sentences commuted by then-president George W. Bush, but this pardon wipes their records clean, making it as though they were never guilty.
In his final days in office, President Trump has issued a string of presidential pardons, with most of the attention going to the corrupt elected officials and other political allies who have garnered this incredible benefit, despite many not even meeting the Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines for consideration. And while those pardons raise their own issues of disparate treatment, privilege, and abuse of power, the pardons of the Border Patrol agents raise those same concerns and more. For much of our nation’s history, immigrants coming to the United States have faced indignities and discrimination, and much of that has bled into communities of immigrants and more generally of people of color throughout the U.S., particularly along the border. People living in these communities often felt like, and have been treated as, not only lesser Americans but lesser humans. Until now, there was at least the hope, if not expectation, that our nation was following the greater arc of history towards inclusion, fairness, and justice. These pardons will make many people question just how stalled our progress has become.
Where do these deeply-ingrained and institutional problems along the border come from and get their fuel to endure? From “the top” comes legislation codifying much of the discrimination, along with the divisive language, that often sets groups against each other; that filters down to not only xenophobic and racist groups emboldened by this normalization, but also to civic institutions including those entrusted with direct engagement of the most vulnerable segments of our community (like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection). By their nature, communities along the border often feel the most strain and experience the greatest oppression, and given that, trust in government and law enforcement institutions has been difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Of course, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation are incredibly powerful and positive forces, and have helped communities around the world defuse, heal, and renew. These are also basic concepts that play an important role in the U.S. justice system. But they require the overarching principles of fairness, true remorse, and trust in the system. These Border Patrol pardons invoke none of these principles. The lead advocate for these former agents’ pardons has been disgraced former Congressman Duncan Hunter, who has championed their cause in Congress, the media, and to President Trump directly. Hunter, recently convicted of stealing campaign funds, found himself on the same list of presidential pardons this week (although he was able to achieve this before serving a single day of his prison sentence). Of particular note in the requests for the agents’ pardons and in the final announcement itself is how they are devoid of any reference to remorse, request for forgiveness, or acceptance of responsibility. Rather, the requests reach back to 2006 to argue they never should have been convicted (i.e. the jury was wrong), and then further back still to 2005 to propose that they were doing their job because the victim was convicted of a drug crime years later. This is neither truth nor reconciliation, and the pardon transforms the convictions to less than a slap on the wrist to the perpetrators and a slap in the face to the communities along the border; communities who continue to struggle today abused by those in power.
Pardoning these former agents is consistent with Trump’s actions and rhetoric since he first launched his presidential campaign. As president, he and his lackeys did their best to make anti-immigrant policies and normalize xenophobia. These pardons are beyond putting salt in the wound; it is salting the earth as the administration does what it can to leave the most lasting and damaging impact on its way out. Our hope should be that the Biden-Harris administration will act swiftly and decisively to focus on policies that will restore trust, reinforce human rights, and return the nation to the admittedly slow but steady march towards a more just society.