New reports claim U.S. Border Patrol agents use a derogatory slur to refer to migrants. As per HuffPost, who obtained official documents, agents have often referred to people crossing the border as “tonks” in both emails and text messages. Although U.S. Customs and Border Protection deems the use of slurs “unacceptable,” an array of agents have allegedly still used the term.

mitú spoke to Jenn Budd, former Senior Patrol Agent and author of “Against the Wall: My Journey From Border Patrol Agent to Immigrant Rights Activist,” to gain insight on the use of slurs like “tonk” in the agency.

For one, Budd explained the confusion that lies in what the word “tonk” means. Some cite that the word may be an acronym for “Traveler, Origin Not Known.” Or, with its alternate spelling “tonc,” could represent “Temporarily Outside Native Country.”

“It’s not confusion, they’re lying to you,” Budd told us. “What the actual word means [is] not what the Border Patrol tells you.” As many reports allege— a notion Budd agrees with— the word “tonk” may symbolize “the sound a flashlight makes” when agents hit migrants on the head.

Budd even recalled fellow agents having t-shirts with a flashlight design and the slur. “It said, ‘If you know what it means, then you don’t need to ask.'” She added, “A very high ranking supervisor, and border patrol agents were wearing it.”

Today, while Customs and Border Protection has stated that “the term ‘tonk’ is not appropriate,” Budd asserts, “They still use it.”

Documents point to agents using the slur in emails and text messages

According to HuffPost’s report, emails and text messages show Border Patrol agents using the word “tonk” as a migrant slur.

In one email, a Border Patrol agent states that a co-worker was “marrying a tonk” because “he couldn’t find a legal chick here.” Another agent sent a photo of a t-shirt with a flashlight design and the word “Tonk” on the front. Yet another thread showed agents using the word “tonk” while also calling migrants an “influx of rats.”

Similarly, back in 2019, Arizona Border Patrol agent Matthew Bowen— who was charged with hitting a migrant with his truck— was found to regularly use the word “tonk” in text messages. As per Rolling Stone, Bowen once wrote, “Everybody thought I ran him over… even though the tonk was totally fine.”

Jacqueline Arellano of the non-profit Border Kindness noted to The Guardian, “I’ve never heard it being used in anything except a derogatory, mocking way by field agents when referring to migrants.”

Interestingly, Border Patrol seemed to have previously kept the word under wraps. In fact, agents have reportedly used the term for decades, but many civilians have never heard of it. “It is something between us and it’s something that you’re literally told as an agent not to tell outsiders,” Budd explained.

The former Senior Patrol Agent says that she also heard the term “wetback” in the agency. However, she states that agents from “Arizona, New Mexico and California” tend to use “tonk.”

Budd alleges that “everybody” around her used the offensive term

How did the word “tonk” come about, though? According to Budd, the slur became more common as Border Patrol hired more Latino agents. While these Latino employees had heard racist terms like “wetback” before, they could separate themselves from the slur “tonk.”

“[The organization wants] them to see themselves as Border Patrol agents and privileged as white agents are,” Budd said. “So [they] created another word for them to use.” In fact, she says Latino Border Patrol agents separate themselves from migrants in the fact they are “not undocumented.”

“The word was created so that our Latino agents did not recognize what we are doing as being racist and prejudiced.”

Even more, Budd said that agents often go to majority-Latino schools on the border, “constantly teaching them that [they] are good.”

“I hate to say this, but when Latinos join the US Border Patrol, they’re joining for privilege… [but] they’re seeking privilege, not equality.”

As per The Guardian, U.S. Border Patrol higher-ups have condemned the use of the word “tonk.” A chief patrol agent in McAllen, Texas once wrote, “The terms ‘wetback’, ‘tonk’, etc. will not be tolerated… Any deviation from these instructions will be considered grounds for counseling and/or disciplinary action.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said in a statement to mitú that any “derogatory language” is “unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” The official said the CBP’s employees “are held to the highest standards of integrity and professionalism” and that the agency “takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, whether it occurs on or off duty.”

The CBP said that they cooperate with “any criminal or administrative investigations” resulting from slur usage. They added that “racially biased, prejudiced, or unprofessional behavior is not tolerated within the agency.”

Still, HuffPost’s report— and Budd’s recollections— show that the word “tonk” may have been normalized for years within agent conversations. And, it is unclear whether it still is.

“I say in my book that, you know, at the time, I had no problem using it,” Budd told us. “Everybody around me used it.” She added, “They’re just lying when they say, yeah, those are just a few bad apples. No, the whole barrel is rotten.”