Esther J. Cepeda


 Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. 
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(Advance for Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- In a perfect world, we would have the utmost confidence that every one of the 60,000-plus employees of U.S. Customs and Border Protection arise each morning with the intention of performing his or her job in a manner that brings honor to the agency.

But many who have re-entered the United States lately have likely experienced CBP attitudes ranging from dim-eyed indifference to general disgruntlement that they left the country at all and now have the temerity to want back in.

Some travelers are even viewed suspiciously and asked increasingly alarming questions about their papers in a sharp tone of voice intended to convey that the person with the power literally doesn't like the look of them.

If you have any doubt such treatment is practically (BEG ITAL)de rigueur(END ITAL) for anyone with dark hair, brown eyes and complexions other than lily-white, look no further than a study titled, "'If They Notice I'm Mexican': Narratives of Perceived Discrimination from Individuals Who Crossed the U.S.-Mexico Border at Ports of Entry."

The paper, which was published this month in the peer-reviewed academic journal Deviant Behavior, details the experiences of nearly 1,000 college students -- most of who were Latino -- who reported having crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at a checkpoint at least once in their lifetime.

Nearly a third of the respondents, all of whom were crossing the border legally and with the proper documentation, reported feeling discriminated against because of their appearance, such as a dark complexion or what would be considered Latino physical features, clothing or personal possessions.

Another 29 percent felt discriminated against for crossing with a Mexican passport (versus a U.S. one), and nearly 14 percent of respondents felt they'd been discriminated against because of a perception that they had limited English proficiency or a foreign accent.

Feeling "discriminated against" included witnessing individuals with lighter skin being processed efficiently with minimal delays, while people with darker skin were treated suspiciously and subjected to extended questioning. Many also reported increased scrutiny, including physical searches -- anything from being patted down to having the inside of your mouth swabbed, as I've experienced myself, even on domestic flights. And some recounted searches of their personal possessions or intimidation through rude and dehumanizing behavior or degrading comments.

I, and most people of color I know, could talk all day about what we've personally witnessed at border crossings just in the last year. But here's just one anecdote from the study. A 19-year-old Latino respondent named Robert said that a CBP Office of Field Operations officer mocked his health issue, making "fun of my heart pulse, because I have a pretty fast pulse -- most of the time my hands are shaking. So when I told him about my health issue, he started to laugh and called other officers to come and see."

Even knowing full well that these are subjective personal testimonies from fallible humans with flawed recollections and their own personal biases, this research quantifies treatment that is widely believed to be real and factual -- the Government Accountability Office stated in a recent report that 20,333 misconduct cases (including criminal offenses) were brought against employees of CBP from 2014 through 2016.

And those perceptions very quickly become realities with far-reaching consequences.

"When people feel they are being treated poorly by law enforcement at the border, it erodes trust," said Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas and a co-author of the paper, along with researchers from his own school and Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas. "People talk, they share vicarious experiences and then you have this folklore that develops; ... if you create a lived experience that law enforcement is not fair, not on their side and not there to help and protect certain people, then these same people are likelier to not report crime and not go to law enforcement for help."

Piquero said that he and his fellow researchers aren't trying to create negative stereotypes of Border Patrol agents with their research -- "We know the majority are good, hardworking people doing a hard job." But he said that the few bad actors that make an intimidating or frightening impression on people need to be rooted out and retrained or reassigned -- for everyone's benefit.

"Public safety requires mutual respect," Piquero told me, "the more we can get people to have good relationships with those in law enforcement, the safer all of us will be."

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- It is said that the best lies have a grain of truth in them. That's the ideal way to characterize President Trump's assertion in the State of the Union address that "African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded."

Ummm, sure.

But only if you don't count the fact that the data has stayed about the same for several years and is now ticking upward. Black unemployment reached a record low of 5.9 percent last May, but it rose to 6.8 percent in January, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Latino unemployment fell to a record-low 4.4 percent, its lowest in October, and Asian-American unemployment fell to 2.2 percent last May. But Latino and Asian-American unemployment have both increased in the past few months -- at least in part because of the longest government shutdown in history.

Nevertheless, one of the most popular memes on Republicans' Twitter and Facebook feeds after Trump's speech was the lament that, as The Washington Examiner put it, "Democrats didn't applaud Trump's celebration of record-low minority unemployment."


But that's not because of partisanship that's blind even to positive changes in the lives of workers.

It's because people who really, deeply care about Hispanic and black unemployment data are very well-versed in the numbers -- and they understand that those raw percentages don't even come close to telling the full story.

For instance, the current African-American unemployment rate is still nearly double the jobless rate for whites (3.5 percent).

And there is also a gap between white and Hispanic unemployment rates -- and it's not getting much narrower. In January 2017, the Hispanic jobless rate of 5.8 percent was 1.5 percentage points higher than the one for whites. And in January 2019, the Hispanic rate was 4.9 percent, 1.4 points higher than for whites.

Some might argue that those rates are disparate because whites represent nearly 61 percent of the U.S. population, compared with Latinos' 18 percent. But they'd be hard pressed to explain away the fact that the wage gaps between these two groups are so pronounced. And these gaps are due to discrimination, not educational attainment level or relevant work experience, according to an Economic Policy Institute paper from July 2018.

"Attaining a college education has not closed the average Hispanic-white wage gap," the paper concluded. "In 2016, Hispanic women with ... a bachelor's degree or more education ... made 36.4 percent less than white men with a college education, which is a just slightly narrower pay gap than in 1980 (37.7 percent) and is essentially the same as the pay gap between Hispanic women and white men with less than a high school education (those who have not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent) in 2016 (36.3 percent)."

You can't even blame immigration status for Latinos' poorer foothold on the employment ladder. The report found that Puerto Ricans have almost consistently had higher unemployment rates than foreign-born Mexican-Americans and Cuban-Americans, even though Puerto Ricans enjoy U.S. citizenship from birth.

Even positive data showing that more Latinos are earning college degrees isn't a good predictor that the earnings gaps will eventually close, according to one of the study's co-authors, Marie T. Mora, professor of economics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. This is because so many other ethnic and racial groups, including low-income whites, are also making gains in college education, she told me.

"In fact, depending on the metric you're looking at, some gaps have widened," Mora said.

She added that some places around the country -- such as south Texas, where she now lives -- have been trending downward in the number of Latinos age 25-64 who are college graduates.

And not because of immigration. The phenomenon is occurring among U.S.-born Hispanics, many of whom, like their white counterparts, have become disillusioned with the idea of college as an economic savior and instead see it as millennials increasingly do: a potentially ruinous financial albatross of student loans that could hang around their necks for a lifetime and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy court.

Until blacks and Hispanics don't have to work twice as hard to get only a fraction as far as whites, no one should expect a smile and applause for a disturbing and unacceptable status quo.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- In my mind, the defining moment of Donald Trump's presidency happened well before he clinched the White House.

It was in January 2016. He showed his true colors when he said, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible."

Those of us who took him seriously (BEG ITAL)and(END ITAL) literally at the outset shuddered. We knew that such bluster could only come from someone who understood that the same people who would accept the recklessness of his comments would also accept the carelessness of his actions.

That's why there's been no outrage from Trump's base about reports that his organization had hired immigrants who are unauthorized to live or work in the United States.

Trump's company has fired at least 18 undocumented workers at five golf courses in New York and New Jersey in the past two months, according to The Washington Post.

The story that Trump had hired illegal workers in the first place was broken by The New York Times, which described the ongoing display of hypocrisy as "an embarrassment for the Trump Organization, coming to light as Mr. Trump has railed against illegal immigration, blamed undocumented immigrants for crime and pledged to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep more people from entering the country unlawfully."

Not true. In no way has the Trump Organization shown anything close to embarrassment over its two-faced business practices.

As a matter of fact, some of the Trump properties that were exposed have defended their actions by blaming the employees for presenting fake documents, even though some of the employees claimed that their supervisors not only knew about their immigration status, but helped them acquire false papers.

The sad truth is that these types of dysfunctional employer-employee relationships are common. The powerful employers use up labor as though it is not only cheap, but disposable. That's because there are so many people waiting and willing to take up the slack after yet another worker has been used up and thrown away.

Oh, and because it's literally written into our immigration laws.

"Before the 1980s, there were no laws about hiring [legal or unauthorized] immigrants; it was only after the [Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986] amnesty that employers had limits on who they could hire," said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University School of Law. "But everyone knew that there was a loophole big enough to drive a truck through: Congress could only sanction employers if they (BEG ITAL)knowingly(END ITAL) hired undocumented immigrants. So as long as the employee presents papers and the employer checks them to see if they look facially valid, then it's fine, because the employer will have deniability. It's a gross violation [of the law], with paper compliance."

Chishti said that the farce is a two-way street, because immigrants who want to work -- even at the risk of being underpaid, mistreated, put in danger or otherwise exploited -- accept the terms of this devil's bargain.

Indeed, no one -- not even immigrant advocacy organizations -- is keen to put teeth into the law. Such organizations have long complained that tools such as the federal E-Verify system run on flawed information that could misidentify legal workers. Ultimately, the detente keeps about 7 million of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. gainfully employed, according to Chishti.

Still, the law against employers hiring undocumented workers is really a sanction against the workers, because when the heat is on, it's the immigrant workers -- like those who were employed on Trump properties -- whose lives are upended.

"But if the businesses are fined a couple of thousand dollars for hiring undocumented workers, that amounts to a slap on the wrist ... it's practically figured in to the cost of doing business," Chishti told me.

One might be indignant -- scandalized even -- when thinking about that in the context of a billionaire's luxury property.

But the hiring of unauthorized workers happens every day in the plants where our meat and poultry are processed, in the factories that make our cheap off-the-rack clothing and in the millions of homes where immigrant laborers toil behind closed doors to care for children, the elderly and the infirm.

Perhaps we have met the enemy of reforming employment-related immigration laws -- and it is us.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.