Between the Sacred and the Profane: The Border as a Contested Space

Black-and-white ideas drive U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol practices.

Illustration by Jean Tuttle / The i Spot

By Christopher Montoya

One night about 20 years ago, while working as a U.S. Border Patrol agent in the deserts of southern Arizona, I apprehended a large group of “undocumented aliens.” During the apprehension, I struck up a conversation with a young girl from Mexico City. As we walked, I offered her my arm to help her navigate the difficult desert terrain. When we arrived at the road where other agents were waiting, a supervisor noticed that she and I were arm in arm. He responded by saying, “These people will hurt you!” I turned to the young undocumented migrant and asked, somewhat sarcastically, “You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?” She giggled and replied, “Of course not,” and continued giggling.

On rare occasions, direct, personal assaults against Border Patrol agents do happen. Throughout the Border Patrol’s history, a handful of agents have been feloniously killed. But enforcement assault data and statistics drawn from various sources suggest that Border Patrol agents enjoy one of the safest law enforcement jobs in the nation. Why, then, would this supervisor offer a blanket statement about this young woman (and the rest of the group) and implicitly accuse them of being potential threats to “our” personal safety? Why did I fail to recognize “these people” as threatening? The answer is complex and requires thoughtful analysis on many different levels. For now, I offer the following limited analysis to help explain these conflicting ideas.

Forget, for the moment, that the U.S.-Mexico border is a geographical or a political boundary. Instead, imagine the border as a site where ideological tectonic plates are constantly grinding against one another. Think of it as a contested space between two abstractions: the Sacred and the Profane.1 Think of it as space that is simultaneously familiar and foreign.

Mircea Eliade informs us that “for religious man, space is not homogeneous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others.” Some parts of “space” are deemed Sacred and other parts are thought of as Profane.2 This leaves us with two many-millennia-old religious ideas about what we should value around us: the Sacred and the Profane.

The Sacred, according to Eliade, is a space that “religious man” has conceptualized as “inhabited territory” or occupied by us. It is a space that is “our space” or “our world.” Religious man thinks of “his world” as the “center of the world” (29, 22). The Sacred is the realm that lives in constant opposition to chaos. The Sacred is the realm of order. It is the realm of law (including immigration law). To a state actor who enforces immigration law on the border, it is known simply as “law and order.” However, as we shall see, some claim that “law and order” in the borderlands is being overtly transgressed.

The Profane, on the other hand, is “everything outside . . . a foreign, chaotic space peopled by ghosts, demons, ‘foreigners’ (who are assimilated to demons and the souls of the dead)” (29). It is also the “unknown . . . a sort of ‘other world’ ” and one “unoccupied by our people” (29, 31). The Profane is the realm of chaos that exists to oppose order. To a border enforcer, it represents “chaotic space” that threatens “our world” by invading us. When lawbreakers (including migrants) and drugs cross that barrier, it symbolizes “the retrogression of the cosmos [order] into chaos” (79).

These ideas of the Sacred and the Profane exist, at least in part, in conflict with a postmodern worldview. Fundamentally, the Sacred and the Profane are structured as a black-or-white proposition, which is inherently more restrictive. In contrast, modern religious interpretations and their manifestations (the Kino Border Initiative, for example) are much more inclusive. Indeed, the KBI has redefined the relationship between foreigners and the nation.3 The Sacred versus the Profane mindset fails to comprehend the nuances found in these more inclusive religious interpretations, and how this lack of nuance might affect our current predicament on our southern border. However, this more primitive lens must be understood, since it continues to frame the perceptions of so many state actors and other stakeholders in the borderlands.

The U.S.-Mexico borderlands are a contested space, “seen” through this deeply and fundamentally religious lens by certain state (and nonstate) actors. This somewhat simplistic view of human migration and criminality can only exacerbate an already tenuous situation. It is important to interrogate how government officials (U.S. Border Patrol) and nonstate actors “see” the border, for it is this “vision” of the border that informs their behavior. I suggest that many state actors, such as Border Patrol agents, who enforce immigration law “see” the border through a very primitive lens that excludes many postmodern refinements of religious ideas. In doing so, their actions, for the most part, fail to align with modern policing practices.

In sharp contrast to organizations like the KBI, border enforcement personnel, generally speaking, see the problem not as an all-inclusive humanitarian mission but as a “good guy versus bad guy” scenario. Consider the following congressional testimony given by National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd to the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, on February 4, 2016:

As I was in church this past Sunday, my mind was preoccupied about this hearing and my testimony. I was thinking about what I could say to help shed light on our current situation when one of the basic tenets of my religion’s faith came to mind: “We believe in being subject to Kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.”

All religions, that I’m aware of, believe in rules, tenets and commandments. It’s no different with the laws of the United States; [when] persons, whether citizens or not, follow the laws of this great nation, peace and prosperity abound. However, when those laws are broken on a large scale; chaos is the byproduct. And make no mistake, chaos defines parts of our southwest border today. . . . [italics mine]

The language in this testimony is revealing. It uses religion to frame a complex problem in simple terms and, at the same time, offers a solution: chaos caused by foreign lawbreakers can be resolved by following laws that will beget order. As evidenced by this testimony, in the context of certain federal law enforcement rhetoric, there appears to be a collision between the Sacred and the Profane at the U.S.-Mexico border. A clear-cut conflict is framed as a battle between order and chaos. Other types of testimony are subtler but offer us similar ideas.

In a report from the KBI is the following migrant testimony: During the course of the apprehension, a Border Patrol agent is alleged to have dragged and punched an “illegal alien.” During the alleged assault, the agent allegedly said to the migrant, “can’t you see this is U.S. territory?”4 At first glance, it is tempting to describe this comment as just an expression of a kind of nationalism. This may, in part, be true. As Benedict Anderson asserts: “The nation is imagined as limited . . . [and] has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind.”5 The idea of the Sacred may be the original “imagined community.” But let me suggest the following explanation.

The Border Patrol agent is operating at the border, a border which is a contested space between the Sacred and the Profane. To the agent, “his” space (everything north of the border) is Sacred. The agent is most likely a Christian who is, in part, acting out a Christian worldview and whatever dogma comes with it from his specific tradition. Agents immersed in this worldview are situated in a unique position in this contested space, given all of the attached cultural values and opinions. Such a position perceives a direct affront to their idea of the Sacred. However, does this interpretation, based on the border agents’ situated knowledge, help or hinder them in making objective claims when it comes to human rights in the broadest sense? I suggest that their current interpretation hinders them. Although they are motivated by a much deeper, much older principle—the Sacred in its opposition to the Profane—they lack a fundamental understanding of the complexities of modern human migration and criminality, especially as these pertain to our southern border. It is this idea of the Sacred in constant opposition to the Profane, in its current iteration, that is problematic.

Part of the problem, as Shaun Casey’s comments suggest, is the mission as it is understood by border enforcers. The mission on the border is to prevent or interdict any and all incursions. Period. Meaningful encounters between enforcers and migrants are fleeting and too often laced with an “us versus them” mentality. In my experience, this is not conducive to fostering religious literacy. To do so would require, at the very least, state actors to reach out from inside the Sacred “bubble” they have constructed. However, enforcers “see” the border through a refracted lens that is much narrower and more constrained, thereby restricting their Sacred space to “members only.” In contrast, faith-based groups like the Kino Border Initiative exhibit a much more inclusive “policy” that, for the most part, draws from a more enlightened religious worldview that greatly expands Sacred space to include some members from “the Profane.”

Another problem is the reliance on congressional testimony given by Border Patrol agents as if it is the only or final word on border issues. To many in Washington, especially under the new administration, enforcers are seen as “experts” when it comes to a host of issues regarding immigration and security in the borderlands. This can lead (and has) to profoundly negative implications for those charged with crafting border policy. For example, in March 2017, congressional testimony given by BP agent Brandon Judd recognized Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona for taking an “interest” in the issue of polygraph administration for prospective BP applicants. In his testimony, Judd clearly favors a change in the “improper administration” of the polygraph as a vetting technique.

Coincidentally, during the same month, U.S. Senators Flake, McCain, and Johnson introduced the “Boots on the Border Act.” In it, they call for waiving polygraphs for veterans, military service members, and law enforcement officers. While an argument could be made to exempt current law enforcement officers from this requirement, I believe it would be malfeasance to excuse the other two. By favoring members of the Sacred—i.e., patriots—Judd and the senators remain in the “bubble.”

As these examples demonstrate, archaic ideas of the Sacred and the Profane are embedded within our current “situatedness” on many levels. In the complex human migration and human rights context at our southern border, the default position should at least be to use contemporary categories of religious interpretation that argue for inclusivity and humane treatment. I fear that, for border enforcement personnel, the “mission” provides obstacles that impede how and to what degree religious literacy is enacted during enforcement operations. In an enforcement setting, especially at the intersection of migration and policing, I agree with Shaun Casey when he suggests that religious literacy will be seen as a “luxury.” Unfortunately, given our current political and social discourse, I’m afraid that primordial, oppositional ideas of the Sacred and the Profane as they pertain to immigration and enforcement will persist.

This is an edited version of remarks delivered at the “Symposium on Religious Literacy and Government: Refugee and Immigration Issues,” sponsored by the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative, held at Harvard Divinity School on December 7–8, 2017.



  1. I capitalize these two words in my writing to show that these concepts have been reified and have led to dichotomous, dualistic thinking in public policy.
  2. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt, 1959); page references cited are to this edition.
  3. The advocacy efforts of the KBI are explicitly “rooted in Catholic teaching” and the organization’s stated mission is “to promote US/Mexico border and immigration policies that affirm the dignity of the human person and a spirit of bi-national solidarity.” See www.kinoborderinitiative.org.
  4. Kino Border Initiative, Intake without Oversight: Firsthand Experiences with the Customs and Border Protection Complaints Process, July 2017 (Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, 2017).
  5. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (Verso, 1991), 7.

Christopher Montoya is a retired Border Control agent and is currently an M.A. candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on how congressional testimony and rhetoric produced by Customs and Border Protection officials influences the border threat narrative.

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