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Saturday 19 January 2019

Build the wall? A US Border Patrol agent with Mexican heritage offers his insight

As a US Border Patrol agent with Mexican heritage, Francisco Cantú got a unique insight into one of the most complex and divisive issues in American society, which he has turned into a book, he tells our reporter

Walking the line: US border Patrol agent turned author Francisco Cantú
Walking the line: US border Patrol agent turned author Francisco Cantú
A new section of the fence that has recently been erected on the border between Mexico and the U.S.A. near the town of Sasabe, Arizona.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

'When I first came into the field, having finished training academy, one of the jobs was getting sent to the top of a lookout hill," Francisco Cantú says, recalling his early days with the United States Border Patrol. "There's a camera truck, and you sit and monitor the desert for people crossing. I remember getting out of my truck one day and looking out at this desert, and having the sensation that it was as vast as the sea. You know? As vast and unknowable as the ocean."

Cantú details his experiences in The Line Becomes a River, one of those rare and wonderful non-fiction books that reads like a novel: a lyrical and impressionistic style; genuine philosophical and thematic depth; the sense of some deeper meaning being conveyed, beyond the surface-level of facts and recollections. And the desert, Francisco goes on, is a "central character": not only in his memoir, but in terms of "what this border is and what it means".

These scorching badlands stretch across the US-Mexico boundary - the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the north (Francisco worked in the latter three); Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas on the south. When he was considering joining Border Patrol in 2008, as a 23-year-old college graduate, recruiters told him it entailed spending a lot of time in the desert, which "really appealed to me".

"I've never had a more intimate relationship with a landscape," he says. "I've never known another so well, except the streets of my hometown in Arizona. It can be so harsh, so strange. And because the desert is so stark, it's easy to have that feeling of being in an ancient place, even outside of time.

Walking the line: US border Patrol agent turned author Francisco Cantú
Walking the line: US border Patrol agent turned author Francisco Cantú

"One of the big tensions about a landscape is that, often, it's very different to the human dramas played out there. That landscape is sort of weaponised by US border policy, which pushes people into the desert, away from towns and other places where it's easier to cross. The desert becomes this deadly place."

Deadly is the word: hundreds of people perish in the attempt each year. Much of Francisco's work as an agent with 'La Migra' involved rescuing these exhausted, dehydrated immigrants from broiling to death under that merciless sun; many seem relieved, rather than scared or disappointed, to be rounded up, fed and watered, then deported home.

He notes the irony that, for so many of the people attempting to enter the US, the desert is a completely alien environment. "They're coming from Central America or other places, where there are jungles and water everywhere," he says. "Now the desert is this huge force they have to overcome.

"I grew up near there, I was familiar with it. But now, any time I drive within 50 miles of the border and look out the window, I know there's a good chance people are out there, lost, trying to make their way through the desert. That's a really overwhelming feeling."

Francisco - he goes by Paco with friends - has the languid drawl and dark handsome features that you'd associate, stereotypically or not, with a lawman on the Mexican border. In the book's author photo, a thick moustache, metal bracelet and Western-style bolo tie complete the picture.

Amusingly, however, he describes himself as "a literary nerd" who had always intended to write fiction. He's a former Fulbright fellow, winner of the prestigious Pushcart Prize and Whiting Award, and an essayist and translator whose work has featured in Harper's, n+1, This American Life and elsewhere.

A decade ago, Francisco had finished studying immigration and border issues in college, before working for think-tanks and non-profits - all of which strongly informed his decision to join the Border Patrol. "I saw that decision (to become an agent) as an extension of my education," he says. "I had all these questions about the border and felt the only way to see the reality, day in and day out, was to do something that would give me the opportunity to be there.

"I was also hyper-obsessed with the physical space itself - where the border ran through the landscape - which comes from having a park ranger for a mother. What appealed to me was being outdoors. I'd spent four years in academia, and really wanted to get my head out of books and from behind a computer screen."

He's part-Irish, through his maternal grandmother; he's been here "just once", but seems genuinely chuffed at the interest in his memoir on this side of the Atlantic. His mother's father was a Mexican immigrant, who crossed as a baby. His mum's a brilliant character throughout the book, almost acting as a Greek chorus in dispensing advice, kindness and, when needed, a motherly kick up the backside to her son.

"My mother is very supportive of me," Francisco says. "And she's happy I'm a writer now, instead of in law enforcement! She was always the one person who held me accountable, and reminded me who I was and the reasons I had joined." Looking back as an ex-agent, he can see that the situation is not as straightforward, in racial terms, as people might assume. This isn't just some nebulous force called 'White America', locking the door to hope on penurious brown-skinned people.

"I did think about my Mexican heritage," he says, "the fact that I spoke Spanish, that my grandfather had crossed the border himself. And I was surprised by how many Border Patrol agents had the same, or stronger, connections to the border."

It's glib in some ways, but has to be asked: what about Donald Trump? "Because of the heightened political rhetoric, so many more people are paying attention to the border now," Francisco says. So how much, or how badly, has Mister 'Build the Wall' affected the situation?

"On one hand," Francisco says, "the policies under Trump are not much different than they were under Obama. The day-to-day reality, the danger of crossing, the way people's lives are put at risk: it's been bad for a long time. But, with the new administration, the rhetoric is so ratcheted-up, and that's really harmful.

"The way we talk about migrants - in the US, and probably Europe as well - we dehumanise them. We read about 'a flood of refugees'; or 'an uptick', as if they're just a line on a graph. Or this idea of 'cat-and-mouse games' at the border: all these metaphors encourage us to think about migrants as an indistinguishable mass, not individuals.

"All of that is more extreme now. Our president claims that all migrants are MS-13 gang members or whatever (this is Mara Salvatrucha, an infamously violent crime gang). Or people talk about the family-reunification immigration policies as 'chain migration'. The rhetoric of building a wall. All these terms are so black and white, designed to give an easy soundbite solution to a huge, complex problem."

It is a huge problem - the definition of intractable, really. On one hand, the US has the right to police its borders. On the other, countless individual lives - of good, decent people - are being severely harmed by a colossal bureaucratic machine which Francisco describes in the book as "this thing that crushes".

He joined the Border Patrol looking for answers. "I thought I might be able to get some," Francisco says, "and go on to be a policy maker or immigration lawyer, with a deeper perspective on it. But honestly, by the end, it all felt more complex than before. I had more questions than I went in with; it seems more insolvable to me.

"What I can say is that current policy, based on deterrent, is causing people to lose their lives. It's caused a humanitarian crisis in our desert, on our doorstep. That's missing from our conversation here. What we do talk about is building more walls and hiring more agents. We've been saying that for years, and we see the results it's had. The crossing has become more expensive and more deadly. There has to be developmental solutions."

He left La Migra a few years ago, having applied for a research scholarship. "I was looking for a way out - a way to leave that would still feel like a path forward," Francisco adds. "Looking back, I see that I'd been bottling things up for so long. The violent nature of that work, there's a big disconnect where you set that aside in order just to get up and do it again the next day. In a way, you disconnect from your own humanity."

This had been manifesting itself in his subconscious for years: "I had these dreams where my teeth were falling out, or I was clenching my jaw so tight they were bursting open. My dentist told me I'd been grinding my teeth in my sleep, and I connected the dots. Those dreams were sort of alarm bells, calling me back to my sense of who I was outside of that job."

He'd kept a journal while working the border, but didn't join specifically to write about it. The journal was mostly so he would remember these formative experiences, and maybe try to process them later, when he had time and intellectual space. The book itself began life, post-quitting, as an attempt to come to terms with what Francisco had been part of: "The ways I'd normalised violence in my life, perpetuating these policies that seem so flawed and deadly."

Surprisingly, there has been a significant backlash to The Line Becomes a River, not from right-wingers but pro-immigrant leftists, who have rowdily disrupted several public readings, labelling Francisco a collaborator and a fascist. He admits to being surprised by this pushback, but suggests an explanation.

"When it came out," he says, "some of the press was almost humanising me and the patrol, rather than emphasising the actual message of the book, which is the way we dehumanise migrants and normalise violence. Some of the media quotes made it sound like I was supporting border policy - that was a misrepresentation, and things spun out from there.

"Another part of the backlash was about whose stories get told, whose voices we listen to. For a lot of people, especially undocumented, it's like, 'Why is everyone clamouring to hear this former agent's story? Us migrants have been trying to tell our story all this time and people haven't paid attention'. That's a valid point. I come from a position of power and to some people it seems wrong that I'm given a microphone at the expense of these other voices. And I agree with that.

"The migrant voice is so often silenced and minimised, but they're who we really have to listen to. They have the most to tell us about immigration issues - much more than I do, or any politician."

The Line Becomes a River is published by The Bodley Head

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