Life

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Instagram Is Very Surreal Right Now

To understand this agency’s self-conception, behold these photos of smiling officers and adorable beagles.

Grid of images of CBP agents, inspection canines, and seized drugs.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Mario Tama/Getty Images and CBP.gov

Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.

For most visitors to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Instagram account, the first question it will raise is: Why does the U.S. Customs and Border Protection have an Instagram account? The use of other social media services seems understandable for an unglamorous federal agency—Twitter offers a fast, seamless way to make announcements; Facebook offers a massive audience and a venue for queries. But Instagram? At a moment when photos of your agency’s doings are being used as supporting evidence for allegations of state-sponsored child abuse, what good could a photo-sharing platform possibly do for your public image?

The answer lies in the profound distance between the public image of today’s CBP and the image it presents on Instagram—a distance longer than the U.S.-Mexico border and wider than the Rio Grande. If an alien landed on Earth today and tried to get a sense of CBP based on its Instagram feed, she might guess that it’s a place where cowboys go to help dogs capture mangoes and papayas before those fruits commit any crimes on U.S. soil, or a rescue organization that sends supplies to needy people who live inside the Statue of Liberty.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the page has no cohesive point of view. Tacky picture-day portraits of employees, postcard-worthy images of rugged men riding horses into the sunset, grainy snapshots of contraband, a deeply weird goodbye card to a retiring CBP dog named Kale, who’s photoshopped onto a beach with a Tiki drink in its hand: None of these look like they belong to a single arm of the federal government, much less a single camera roll. The captions, however, are remarkably consistent. The hashtags #KeepingAmericaSafe, #HonorFirst, and #CBP appear often, a sign of a social media manager’s faith that American patriots are somewhere out there on Instagram, trying to find a conveniently aggregated feed of #KeepingAmericaSafe-related content. Judging by the not-insignificant number of comments asking questions such as “When’s the wall coming up? I’d love to help build it!” that faith is probably not misplaced.

Part of the disconnect between the CBP in the mind of today’s news consumer (the CBP that detains migrant children in chain-link cells) and the CBP of Instagram (the CBP that employs a staggering number of beagles) owes to the fact that the law enforcement agency is tasked with a wide range of seemingly unrelated duties. There’s the mundane work of logging international entries and exits through the nation’s airports, illustrated on Instagram with the world’s most boring photos of fingerprinting machines and security queues. On the other end of the Instagrammable spectrum is the drug-seizure part, which begets absolutely insane photos, including one of a tweaked-out German shepherd standing astride a pyramid of marijuana bales in a desert scrubland while a helicopter hovers nearby. CBP is also in charge of inspecting shipments of foreign produce for insects and foreign products for counterfeits, such as these three guitars that, according to Instagram, “had our import specialists singing the blues.”

And then there’s the stuff that’s landed CBP in the news this month, as Americans have by turns condemned and applauded the agency’s role in enforcing a recent Trump administration policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The heart-stopping audio of children sobbing and begging for their parents that made its way around the internet on Monday? That was recorded at a CBP facility. Even now that Donald Trump has changed the policy from immediate separation to indefinite family detention, CBP says the more than 2,300 children who’ve already been sent alone to shelters and detention centers across the country will not be reunited with their parents until after the parents are prosecuted, which may be months or even years away.

Unsurprisingly, none of this has made it to CBP’s Instagram page. There are none of the cages, none of the inconsolable toddlers, none of the “tender age” concentration camps for babies, none of the parents begging to know, at the very least, where their children are locked up. In fact, the only migrants I could find in the feed were three weary, wary men being led through Texas snow on horseback by two CBP agents. The caption spun it as a moment of heroism: “Border Patrol agents in Laredo didn’t let a little snow stop them! In 24 hours, they rescued 20 migrants in distress due to the cold weather.”

The lack of Instagram visibility for the victims of CBP’s cruelty isn’t necessarily a ding against the agency. Few on the side of human dignity would advocate for the fetishization of brutal law enforcement tactics, á la Cops, in which direction the CBP Instagram account would surely go if forced to document the people on the business end of the agents’ abundantly depicted firearms. And certainly, a nationalist mechanism of racial gatekeeping cannot be trusted to accurately convey the stories of the Central American families prodded through its gears. But the near-absolute absence of the hundreds of thousands of lives upended by CBP on its Instagram page leaves a void that screams bloody murder.

The lovelier the photo, the chirpier the caption, the louder the scream. A uniformed agent in a bulletproof utility vest rides his horse—“It’s #Friday! Galloping toward the weekend like…. #TGIF”—and the scream asks about the people he might have apprehended on the border, for whom the weekend marks no respite. A man with a rifle gazes down a gravel road while a massive lightning bolt splits the sky—“Working along the border can be dangerous and desolate at times…but also prone to moments where one can see the best nature has to offer.”—and the scream wonders how many families scrambled for cover from that same lightning storm, terrified that they might lose the comparative safety of darkness. A grinning officer in sporty shades helps two tiny blond girls pet a CBP beagle—“CBP officers spread some holiday cheer in the Miami Field Office area”—and the scream inquires after those other children, almost identical to these but for their darker hair and skin, whose bodies and minds will bear the scars of their stints as political bargaining chips for as long as they live.

While the content on CBP’s Instagram page is too broad to be a good PR tool and too narrow to provide an accurate picture of the agency, the account’s lack of bureaucratic focus may still prove useful. The account is full of the peculiar tics of social media: One photo of a beagle sitting in an open suitcase is tagged “#WoofWednesday” and described in the caption as “so adorbs”; in the days before the Super Bowl, one CBP employee tried to make #CBPCountdowntoKickoff happen in a series of excruciatingly amateur videos about all the cargo screening that goes on before the game. One photo of the U.S.-Mexico border fence—the second photo in this slideshow—is edited with Instagram’s tilt shift feature, which gives images that signature blurred-around-the-edges look. 

There’s very clearly a person, not a computer program or an unknowable inhuman entity, making the decisions that yield the pictures and words on the screen. And so this feed is a reminder that government policies, too, are written and carried out by regular people. Trace to its roots the terror we are witnessing on the border and at detention centers across the country, and you won’t find a bunch of soulless robots or piles of forms in filing cabinets. Behind this Instagram account, and behind all this inhumanity, there are only humans.

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