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What can we learn from a former border agent

Published on 11/26/2022
What is a nation? How we answer the question ripples all the way to our borders, north, south, west, east and influences immigration and border policy.

If what binds a nation together is the idea that we are an exceptional liberal democracy ruled by majority with rights for minorities, as Paul D Miller asserts in The Religion of American Greatness, then our nation can create a humane, just border policy. Indeed, if the nation’s binding story is our liberal democracy, then a fair and firm immigration and border policy could be a much higher priority. 

But if what makes the US exceptional is not our extraordinary success at democracy but instead is a cultural identity, then our immigration policy will treat any outsider as suspect until they are fully assimilated. Its based on the fear that “We will lose who we are, if our culture changes too much,” which Miller posists is nationalism, a dangerous ideology that operates on authoritarianism and breeds resistance. Taken to its logical extreme suggests that America would have to depend upon the “cultured habits of eighteenth-century English gentleman” to survive, Miller writes.

But this column is not about Paul D. Miller’s thoughts on nationhood. Rather it’s related to Francisco Cantu’s The Line Becomes a River, a memoir about his years as a border patrol agent in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Cantu’s book is the next selection for the LWVMC’s Well-Read Citizens Brigade, whose next discussion is on December 7th.  

Even though The Line Becomes a River came out over four years ago, it is worth reading (or re-reading). Cantu’s book balances his personal experiences with a multitude of outside voices. His account invites readers to wrestle with him, since we frequently say that our immigration and border policy need reform. His book provides first-hand accounts to help us ask the necessary questions about how to police our borders.

The US Border Patrol is subject the winds (or whims) of political change. Within the force and the American public the debate is implicitly framed as one of the tough law-and-order solution versus “overly compassionate” policies. (Or worse the misnomer of “open-border” policies.) Indeed, as Cantu’s account reveals, border agents themselves along with the immigrants they detain are subject to swings of brutality and compassion.

Cantu went into Border Patrol with an unusual “why.”  A 23-year old who studied international relations in Washington, he returned to Arizona and told his skeptical mother, “I’m tired of reading about the border in books.” Part American, part Mexican, he wondered at the tension between the two cultures and the everpresent threat of death along the border. “I’ll never understand it until I’m close to it,” he told his mother, a retired park ranger.

“What does it mean to be good at this?” He wondered during training when he realizes he is a good agent. He notes that what “good at this”has different meanings. It “depends on who you are with, depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to become.” He then writes of coming up on deserted camps, border crossers having fled the agents. He and other agents slashed water bottles, dumped backpacks and food on the ground, trampled and peed on them, then set the remnants on fire.  Being good at his job was a learned behavior and meant accepting things he knew were wrong and inhumane.

Cantu wrestles with the moral injury the job creates, something he learned from Iraq veterans who testified that it set in slowly in the years after leaving the battlefield, “when a person has time to reflect on a traumatic experience.” 

Cantu’s memoir invites readers into his mental wrangling and allows us too to reflection and discuss. Like many of us, Cantu holds within himself multiple ethnic origins, and his book implicitly asks us to remember America’s founding ideology: liberal democratic-republic values. 

Behind the debate are implicit philosophies at odds with each other. One policy solutions seems implies American greatness is based on having one dominant cultural identity, something Anglo-Christian. Another asks what the great American democratic experiment has proven about sustaining an ethnically and intellectually diverse polity? As we citizens wait for a titanic deadlocked Congress to reform border and immigration policy, what is imperative of us? After all we live a country where government is by the people, for the people. All the people. 

Everyone is welcome to join the Well-Read Citizens Brigade discussion at 7:30pm at Backstep Brewery on December 7.