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Legitimacy, Morality, and Criminality: The Occupational Culture of U.S. Border Patrol Agents


The moral authority of the United States’ immigration control bureaucracy rests on the premise that undocumented immigrants are criminals and potential terrorists. Yet, this bureaucratic ideology contrasts starkly with the demographic reality of immigration flows, challenging the legitimacy of the government’s punitive enforcement strategies. The schism between bureaucratic ideology and on-the-ground experience is especially salient for border guards whose exposure to the humanity of aliens challenges the institutional logics that permeate their professionalization. This dissertation draws on semi-structured interviews with active U.S. Border Patrol agents to examine how they grapple with, and ultimately resolve the schism between ideology and the social reality of their daily work.

I find that agents rely on state-created narratives on immigrant criminality, homeland security, and the importance of legal controls to establish the moral rightness of their professional role. However, these agents are not mere stand-ins that echo the government’s official discourse. My analysis reveals a constant negotiation between their function as state agents, and their subjectivity as people who are self-conscious of this role. Ultimately, though, agents do resolve the multiple contradictions they encounter on the job and end up reproducing the state’s ideologies, even when faced with ample evidence that contradicts their validity. Therefore, I argue that agents’ meaning making rationales are not merely self-serving identity processes—they also function as legitimation work, created and nourished by the state to justify its policies. As agents are socialized, they rely on these state-initiated narratives to cultivate a positive occupational identity and respond to outsiders’ criticism of their work. And, as agents cultivate self-legitimacy, they reveal and reproduce the broad assumptions, unspoken rules, and institutional logics that make up their professional culture and guide their daily practices. By making Border Patrol agents intelligible as individuals embedded within a particular bureaucratic system, this dissertation uncovers the hidden cultural scripts of this insular occupational group, as well as the moral economy that undergirds the daily life of the United States’ immigration control system in the post 9/11 era.

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