The unofficial coin surfaced on eBay. (screenshot Billy Anania/Hyperallergic via eBay)

A coin circulating online depicts the United States Border Patrol’s egregious treatment of Haitian migrants along the US-Mexico border. Dozens of unofficial “challenge” coins sold on eBay portray an agent on horseback accosting asylum seeker Mirard Joseph and wielding the reins like a whip — a shocking scene first captured by photographer Paul Ratje in Del Rio, Texas, last September. 

A sculpted relief of Ratje’s photo appears on the obverse of the coin above the words “Honor Will Always Be First.” On the reverse, the phrase “Reining It In Since May 18, 1924” references the founding of US Customs & Border Protection (CBP), accompanied by “Yesterday’s Border Is Not Today’s Border.” Along the edge, an ominous inscription warns: “You Will Be Returned.” CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility has since opened an investigation into whether the creation and distribution of the coins can be traced to Border Patrol agents.

The original eBay listing valued each item at $15.19, per a Miami Herald report, but the price skyrocketed to nearly $500 after controversy ensued on social media. That listing has been removed, although others have surfaced sporadically. In a statement emailed to Hyperallergic, CBP Assistant Commissioner Luis Miranda claimed the agency would take “appropriate action” against anyone selling the coin, and the chief counsel would send a cease-and-desist letter to “any vendor who produces unauthorized challenge coins using one of CBP’s trademarked brands.”

“The images depicted on this coin are offensive, insensitive, and run counter to the core values of CBP,” Miranda said.

Despite this claim, there is a long history of vigilante militias and white supremacist groups lynching immigrants of color or turning them in to local Border Patrol stations — including the Texas Rangers and Ku Klux Klan, the latter of whom patrolled the border pre-1924. According to the American Immigration Council (AIC), when Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, it instituted a strict national origins quota that “prioritized northern and western Europeans over the rest of the world.”

“Since its founding nearly 100 years ago, the Border Patrol has become a sprawling and immensely powerful law enforcement agency with a deeply entrenched culture of racism and abuse,” the AIC’s report states. “Nevertheless, the agency has received ample funding from Congress and enjoys an extraordinary degree of independence.”

Along with the military and law enforcement, CBP mints their official, federally funded coins to memorialize “challenges” faced by agents either in training or on the job. Their purpose is to “instill unit pride, improve esprit de corps, and reward hard work and excellence,” according to the Department of Defense’s website. Several coins are available to purchase online, including one titled “Riding Rough Country,” specifically honor mounted agents on horseback.

Unofficial coins, which far outnumber the official ones, are funded independently and reflect a more clandestine tradition among agents to valorize their jobs. CBP agents allegedly promote them in a secret Facebook group where agents are said to be more openly racist and sexist. 

The origins of this new coin still remain unclear, but Newsmax television host and former New York Police Department officer John Cardillo pointed directly to the Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “My friend who produced this coin and his family have served our nation with DHS and CBP for nearly 25 [years], putting their lives on the line daily,” Cardillo tweeted on Saturday. In 2019, CBP caused a similar controversy after circulating an unofficial coin depicting the “migrant caravan” of Central American families, which became a fear-mongering talking point for the Trump administration. 

On social media, critics likewise pointed to the CBP’s record of racialized violence. Cartoonist Jesse Duquette posted a colorful illustration of Ratje’s photograph on Instagram with a caption that reads, “’Stop making everything about race!’ America: What if we put it on a coin?” A Twitter account called Holding Biden Accountable noted that “Biden has increased CBP funding and used them to deport more Haitians” than the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, a statistic first reported by the New York Times, while immigration attorney Allison Norris claimed the agency is “fundamentally flawed and must be abolished.”

The ongoing immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border reflects larger issues of racism and discrimination in American policing, which continue to materialize in nationalist aesthetics. Prolonged inaction from government officials just ensures more of the same.

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Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.