This Word Is At The Center Of 2 Border-Related Legal Cases. What Does It Mean?

Published: Monday, July 22, 2019 - 12:13pm
Updated: Monday, July 22, 2019 - 1:35pm
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MARK BRODIE: There is a word that's at the center of two legal cases in Arizona involving the border and immigration. And there's a dispute over the actual meaning of that word. Some Border Patrol agents say "tonk" is an acronym for "territory of origin not known." But there's also evidence that the phrase is a derogatory term to refer to undocumented immigrants. With me to talk more about this is Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas El Paso. And Josiah, is there actually any way to really settle this dispute and determine what the word really means?

JOSIAH HEYMAN: That I know of, it is a term that originates with hierarchical violence. It's the sound of a person being hit with the handle of a large flashlight. It's the sound of the blow of the flashlight against their body or head. I was told that by Border Patrol officers. I did ethnography with then-INS officers in the early 1990s. Part of it was with Border Patrol, and I specifically was told that that's what the word "tonk"meant. That's what its origin was. Are there other origins? I don't know, except that it seems like they're excessively convenient, that I consider them to be after-the-fact rationalizations of a word that has disturbing implications. We know anyway, whatever the original meaning of the word is, that it's used as a insulting word for people who are below you and against whom force can be used.

BRODIE: Well it's interesting because, for example, I've read that the phrase stands for "territory of origin not known," which would refer to somebody that you don't necessarily know where they're from. But what you're saying is that even if that is what it means, the way that the word is used might be more relevant here.

HEYMAN: I think it absolutely is relevant. I mean, it's widely used, and I heard it often directly from border patrol officers in regular, everyday circumstances, while they were doing their work, talking about their work to me. You know, they were willing to say this to an outsider. So I think that's correct. And I nalso want to point out that that I first heard this 27 years ago, and I know that there are citations, a few fragmentary citations and court documents from before then. So this is something that has a long, has a deep history. And sort of to come back and reinvent its history now after 27 years seems to me to be quite incorrect.

BRODIE: I'm curious about the legal implications of this word. As you reference, it's been referenced in court cases before. It's currently involved in a couple of cases now. Given the fact that there is dispute — I mean the Border Patrol would I think in some ways dispute the characterization of this word as derogatory. I know you're not a law professor, but how does that sort of play in a legal setting when the Border Patrol, the agents are saying one thing and other experts are saying something else?

HEYMAN: Well, I think that a critical question in considering the use of force in a law enforcement setting is the perspective of a reasonable officer. So the question is, what does a reasonable officer perceive? For example, do they perceive that as an officer they're threatened? Do they perceive that there is a legitimate law enforcement need for a certain type of use of force? So I think it tells us, it speaks very directly to this question about is the officer being reasonable or not reasonable? If the officer is using a word that has the implication of the justification of use of force, violence against people, beating them? That's what "tonking" is. That would raise a question. This is not a reasonable use of force.

BRODIE: How strong is the connection between the language that people use and the way that they act sort of based on that? In other words, if a Border Patrol agent or anybody really were to use a word like this to describe somebody, how strongly does that suggest that they might be willing to use force against them or do something else to that person or about that person that they shouldn't otherwise do?

HEYMAN: It's not mean it's not absolutely determined. And we learn to use words, we learn to use vocabulary, we repeat what we hear from other people, slang, and may or may not actually follow up on that, but it forms a broad framework, and it does have an effect on our thinking both consciously and unconsciously.

BRODIE: Obviously the Border Patrol and specific agents have been investigated. There have been reports of maltreatment and such. I'm wondering, when you're trying to solve a problem like this, where on the list of things that authorities need to do is sort of fixing the language, is changing the way that agents are talking about and talking. To the people with whom they are interacting?

HEYMAN: I think that fixing the language is part of fixing a broader set of ideas and attitudes. So I don't think they're like separate tasks. Oh, you know, if you just use politically correct language, everything will be fine. There are issues of physical force. There are issues of legal rights. There's issues of corruption. There's issues of sexual abuse, and I think we need to tackle all of those policing issues.

BRODIE: All right. Josiah Heyman is director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas El Paso. Josiah, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

HEYMAN: Yeah very happy to.

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