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The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú

October 28, 2018


When The Line Becomes a River was published, Francisco Cantú drew ire from both sides of the immigration debate. He was critical of the U.S.’s border policy, so attracted the expected fire from immigration hard-liners. But he also drew criticism from the other side, because after studying immigration law, Cantú had served as a border agent for four years. He’d participated in what some saw as a brutal, inhumane system, and now he was profiting off his experience.

He tweeted: “During my years as a BP agent, I was complicit in perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy. My book is about acknowledging that, it’s about thinking through the ways we normalize violence and dehumanize migrants as individuals and as a society.”

There are many complicated layers to the border issue. With his unique personal story, Cantú adds a few more. A third-generation Mexican-American, he grew up in Tucson. As a student of immigration law, he wanted to gain first-hand experience with the issue. So he joined the border patrol. His mother, a former park ranger, was not happy about his decision. While Francisco argued that people don’t join the border patrol to oppress people, they join to serve their country, his mother warned him that any institution can and will change you. Even the Park Service, a noble institution if there ever was one, changed her. “If I’m honest, I can see now that I spent my career slowly losing a sense of purpose, even though I was close to the outdoors, close to the places I loved. You see, the government took my passion and bent it to its own purpose. I don’t want that for you.”

With the border patrol, the risks are higher because the violence is inherent in the system. Our border policies unintentionally conspire with the violence of the Mexican drug cartels to create a brutal machine that destroys thousands of lives annually. Driven away from populous areas by the heavier patrols, migrants are forced to cross the rugged terrain of the Sonoran desert. Many die. The bones of immigrants, picked clean and scattered by animals, bleached by the sun, litter the border areas in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Our policy “really serves to weaponized that landscape,” Cantú said in an interview.

He found bodies on patrol. He found near-dead migrants. He met people who had left their dead relatives in the desert to be erased from existence. He contemplates this, what it means to be wiped from the earth with nothing to mark a grave, nothing to mark the passing from this world of a human soul.

They are, most of them, looking for a better life. They flee poverty and violence, trying to escape the drug cartels, trying to create a better life for their families. That desire should be a cause of empathy for Americans. Who wouldn’t risk everything to save their family? But rather than see it as a humanitarian crisis to be solved, our fear-mongering politicians use it as a wedge issue. They paint pictures of bands of murderers and rapists coming for us. Despite the facts—statistically, the crime rate is higher with American citizens than with immigrants—politicians portray immigrants as an existential threat.

The border issue is complicated. It is about geopolitics and drug policy and trade policy and poverty and government corruption. There are no easy solutions. But mostly it is about humanity. The greatest strength of this book is that it makes it so. It puts a human face on the issue. One might think Cantú is a hypocrite or a traitor for his time with the border patrol, but the story he is telling here is important even so.

The border issue is not about the immigrants. It’s about us. If we honor the ideals written into our founding documents and etched into our monuments—not just when it’s politically expedient—we would be genuinely trying to solve this issue with a humane approach.  But instead, our President describes immigrants with racist, xenophobic language. And while we are distracted with a debate over an idiotic campaign promise—whether or not we should build a wall—our policy is destroying lives.

We are all complicit in this. Cantú wrote this book before we started separating families and shipping children back to their countries alone with nobody to receive them. At our political roundtables, we justify this as ensuring our protection, or because they are not citizens and therefore do not have rights, but in doing so we are selling our souls. As Francisco’s mother admonishes him, “You can’t exist in a system for that long without being implicated in it, without absorbing its poison.”

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