Emails Show Border Patrol's Widespread Use Of Anti-Immigrant Slur

Documents obtained by HuffPost show that even some agents in supervisory roles used an ugly term that in some usages evokes violent assault.

U.S. Border Patrol agents across ranks and regions routinely referred to unauthorized migrants using the derogatory slur “tonk,” according to emails and text messages disclosed to HuffPost under the Freedom of Information Act.

Higher-ups in Washington and within the Border Patrol itself have told agents that discriminatory and racist language undermines the agency’s mission — at times singling out the term “tonk” specifically and threatening disciplinary action for its use.

But its use remains surprisingly routine, even in government communications that in some cases bore email signatures of supervising agents, the documents show. HuffPost submitted the FOIA request in 2020, asking for agency communications that included the word. The agency began a partial release of the documents last week.

The widespread use of the term hints at the hostility many within the agency’s rank-and-file hold for the people they police, who mostly are migrants fleeing humanitarian crises and economic disasters in Latin America.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a HuffPost request asking whether any Border Patrol staff members have been disciplined for using the term.

‘That’s Pretty Bad’

The word “tonk” does not have a clear origin. Some say it’s an acronym for some variation of “Traveler, Origin Not Known” or “Traveler Outside Native Country.”

The broadest consensus among those familiar with it, however, is that the slur comes from the sound made by slamming a heavy-duty flashlight or baton over a migrant’s head.

Though no one can say for sure, the flashlight definition has adherents within the agency. In an email with the subject line “Tonk,” a Border Patrol agent in the Spokane, Washington, region asked whether someone ”‘found’ that head wound with his maglite.” (The names in the documents released to HuffPost were redacted.)

When a supervising agent in New Mexico sent an email in January 2019 about a “really bad memo,” the recipient responded that he bought a T-shirt for a colleague “that looks like the following... It will give you a good laugh I hope.”

A prevalent theory about the origin of the slur "tonk," widely used by Border Patrol agents, is that it's the sound of bashing a migrant's head with a flashlight.
A prevalent theory about the origin of the slur "tonk," widely used by Border Patrol agents, is that it's the sound of bashing a migrant's head with a flashlight.
Border Patrol email image

The term does not describe a specific race. Bilingual agents typing in idiomatic Spanglish used it in an agency where roughly 50% of employees are Hispanic.

Some Border Patrol employees, however, appeared to use the term in ways that appeared overtly racist or flatly discriminatory, particularly when sharing news stories.

An email sent by the watch commander for the Border Patrol’s Wellton Station in the Yuma Sector in Arizona carried the subject line “American TONK” and the comment “The future...” with a link to a news story about a brown-skinned woman with a Spanish surname breastfeeding her child at Disneyland.

A text chain between Border Patrol employees described migrants not just as “tonks” but also as “an influx of rats” from “whatamala, el salvado and hondodas.” In another text chain, Border Patrol personnel mocked a co-worker for “marrying a tonk” because “he cant find a legal chick here WOW.”

The term has always bothered some within law enforcement, especially after the historically siloed Border Patrol was merged into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, bringing new scrutiny to the agency.

Alonzo Peña, a former deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, got his start in law enforcement as a customs investigator under the old Immigration and Naturalization Service. It wasn’t until his bureau was merged with ICE in 2003, after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, that he started hearing officers saying phrases like “I picked up a tonk,” Peña told HuffPost in a 2018 interview. (Peña died in 2019.)

When he asked what “tonk” meant, the answer unsettled him.

“I thought, ‘That’s pretty bad,’” Peña said. “My initial reaction was that’s an abuse of authority. Ninety-nine percent of the time, when you’re dealing with illegal immigrants that you detain, they’re generally compliant. They don’t resist or anything like that. You don’t need to hit them in the head.”

The agency has repeatedly told personnel not to use insulting terms, contending that they undermine public trust in the Border Patrol.

“The terms ‘wetback,’ ‘tonk,’ etc. will not be tolerated,” the chief patrol agent for the McAllen Sector in Texas wrote to staff in an email dated Aug. 2, 2000. “Any deviation from these instructions will be considered grounds for counseling and/or disciplinary action.” The commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent a similar warning condemning the use of slurs in 2002, though it did not mention the term “tonk” specifically.

Guidance from Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, stated flatly in 2019 that “the term tonk is not appropriate” because it is “considered a derogatory term and CBP does not condone its use.”

A U.S. Border Patrol agent in Yuma, Arizona, checks the passports of migrants after they crossed the border with Mexico on May 18, 2022.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent in Yuma, Arizona, checks the passports of migrants after they crossed the border with Mexico on May 18, 2022.
Mario Tama via Getty Images

But the term is ingrained enough that agents used it casually when filing paperwork or sending routine communications.

Photo files sent by email were often named “tonk.” Subject lines and attached files contained terms including “assaultive tonk,” “freezing tonk,” “tonk phone” and “familia tonk.”

″[Redacted] is gonna buy some hot pockets for the tonks,” a supervising agent in Vermont wrote in a 2017 email with the subject line “RE: tonk meals in [redacted].”

Multiple supervising agents and watch commanders used the term in written communications at stations in Arizona, New Mexico, California and Vermont.

Border Patrol employees, all of whose names were redacted, appeared aware that the public may take exception to describing migrants with slurs.

In a heavily redacted text conversation, two Border Patrol employees appeared to criticize the terms people using “Liberal logic” used to describe unauthorized migrants:

“WOW. Pussification of America”

“Lol yup”

“I’m good with calling them Tonk”

“Works for me too”

An Inside Term

Few people outside Border Patrol circles had even heard the term until recent years.

Thomas Homan, the controversial hard-liner who headed Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the first year and a half of the Trump administration, cast a spotlight on the slur by allegedly using it in Washington, D.C., in front of Border Patrol outsiders, which HuffPost disclosed in April 2018. (Homan, who began his career in federal law enforcement as a Border Patrol agent, denied using the term.)

A group of Democratic Congress members denounced Homan’s alleged use of the term and appeared poised to grill him over it at his Senate confirmation hearing. Homan resigned two months later without going through the hearing.

The term also surfaced after Border Patrol agent Matthew Bowen faced prosecution for striking a Guatemalan migrant with a government truck in December 2017. Bowen, who pleaded guilty and received probation, had described unauthorized migrants as “tonks,” “Guats” and “subhuman shit unworthy of being kindling for a fire” in texts disclosed by the court.

Such slurs are likely more pervasive than the records indicate. The documents provided to HuffPost were part of an interim release. Customs and Border Protection’s office that handles Freedom of Information Act requests said it is continuing to conduct searches for communications containing the term.

Some agents also appeared to disguise language with deliberate misspellings when typing on government-issued devices. One Border Patrol employee, for example, told another that their “text thread went dryer [sic] than your pu $$ Y.”

Those participating in the thread, however, appeared less concerned about their use of slurs than with profanity. The term “tonks” was spelled correctly ― and in all caps.

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