Francisco Cantú worked as a border-patrol agent in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas from 2008 to 2012. Since leaving the patrol, his writing has appeared in Guernica, Territory and Ploughshares, as well as in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. A book-length memoir about his time in the borderlands is forthcoming in 2018 from Riverhead Books.
John Washington is a writer, activist and translator based in Arizona. His writing on the border has appeared in the Nation, Salon and Al-Jazeera. Since 2008, he has volunteered with No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization whose mission is to “end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands.”
Francisco and John talked with me in December about immigration, the border and what it means to call a country a home.
Jon Baskin: I want to start with the role immigration played in the recent election. During the campaign, Larissa MacFarquhar wrote an article about Trump voters in West Virginia for the New Yorker. Many of the people MacFarquhar interviewed for the article dealt with hardly any migrants in their day-to-day lives, and yet they talked repeatedly about the importance of the border. At one point, MacFarquhar writes, “When Clinton talks about Trump voters, she tends to divide them into two categories: bigots (her “basket of deplorables”) and people suffering from economic hardship. What’s missing from Clinton’s two categories is a third sort of person, who doesn’t want to think of himself as racist, but who feels that strong borders describe a home. There are many such people, and not just in West Virginia.”
Having each spent significant time on the actual border, what would you both say to someone who makes this argument: America is my home, and I want my home to have strong borders—or walls?
Francisco Cantú: If I were talking to someone who doesn’t want to think of themselves as racist but believes that “strong borders describe a home,” one question I would ask is: What do we mean when we say “home”? Especially if we’re trying to apply it to something as large as this country. If borders describe a home, does that mean they should define a space where we can feel comfortable? And what “we” are we talking about? The idea that strong borders will ensure the comfort of the majority, the idea that any one group of people is entitled to absolute comfort within the boundaries of a nation in the first place is a privileged notion.
Maybe that’s why the idea of strong borders is so alluring—it offers us the illusion that we can keep everything we want within neatly defined boundaries, and keep out anything that threatens us. I understand that line of thinking, especially if you live in the interior of the country. But as someone who grew up in Arizona—and John and I now both live in what I think anyone would call the borderlands, 45 minutes from Mexico—my first answer to that person would be that you can’t think of America as a home that has walls; you have to think of it as a territory, and a landscape.
JB: What difference does it make to see America as a territory as opposed to a home?
FC: In the political conversation about immigration, I don’t see the reality of the landscape ever being reflected. One of the things that continues to impress me is how stunningly vast and rugged and remote the terrain is that we’re talking about. So remote that in the Nineties, policymakers thought most migrants wouldn’t even try to pass through it. So I’d want to ask that person in West Virginia, who thinks a home needs walls, to come to the Southwest and see the vast expanses of space that we’re talking about. This is not forgettable terrain we can just write off; this is an area with its own distinct culture and history, where people are living.
If the West Virginia voter is trying to make a broader point about the value of boundaries in separating and defining a country as a place that is distinct regardless of economic disparity or racial and cultural differences, then the idea is close to the old axiom that “good fences make good neighbors.” Personally, I don’t buy that. The proverb has its roots in agrarian societies where good fences kept valuable livestock within the domain of their rightful owners. But we’re not talking about livestock in the countryside here, we’re talking about modern societies in a globalized world. So what really makes for good neighbors in this case?
Good policy, first and foremost, good communication, and a good understanding of one another’s motivations.
John Washington: I like the idea of a territory, too. It helps separate the idea of the border from that of the nation-state. It’s just land, and certainly it hasn’t been American land forever. A home has walls—that is certain. But a nation doesn’t necessarily have walls. America didn’t have a wall in 1980. It didn’t even have the Border Patrol during World War I, but it was obviously still a country.
And in terms of security, we don’t know of a single terrorist planning a terrorist attack who has crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. So the border wall isn’t going to do anything for protection. And the homeland security budget is over $65 billion, of which border enforcement accounts for around $20 billion. So what is that person in West Virginia gaining in terms of security from sending his tax dollars to the Border Patrol?