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?
JB: In your view does a nation-state (or the idea of it) perform any positive or useful functions?
JW: I’m not against the idea of some type of soft border as an organizational tool. The Constitution proposes a union to establish justice, ensure tranquility, provide defense and promote welfare—a decent, if presumptuous, agenda. As no group of people can do that for all groups of people, you need to define some limits, especially according to the logic of defense. But perhaps staking a territorial claim is part of what provokes the need for defense in the first place. That is, the idea of the border has been a symbol and justification for violence for as long as borders between nations or empires have existed.
There might be personal, legitimate grounds for wanting to establish some form of a border—but the nuanced logic of personal desire for peace of mind (that person in West Virginia) is very different from the blunt and chest-thumping logic of the nation-state. You can’t extrapolate individual preference into national policy.
JB: How did each of you get personally interested in the border?
FC: To answer I’ll go very far back. I grew up in Arizona, in a town about four hours north of the border. I’m Hispanic but I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. The first time I really became conscious of the border was in high school, when I was working as a busboy in an Italian restaurant. Most of the bussers, dishwashers and cooks at the restaurant were undocumented migrants from Mexico. So that was the beginning for me of thinking about migration and border issues.
Then during my undergraduate studies in international relations, I focused on U.S.-Mexico relations, border issues and immigration. Toward the end of school, at a job fair, I walked by a booth that the Department of Homeland Security had set up, and laughingly I took a brochure. But at home I began thinking about how I could see the issues I’d studied play out on the ground, and the Border Patrol started to seem like one of the only ways. I had spent four years studying the border in books, so I was seeking to connect the academic knowledge I had with something more tangible.
But there was also a draw there—I imagine it was somewhat similar for John—there’s a tension at the border that I think I was seeking to understand.
JW: I have some family history with migration: my mother emigrated from Romania with her parents when she was a teenager. So I heard stories all my life about people being smuggled across borders and hidden in train compartments. Those migrants were escaping totalitarian regimes and, for the most part, were celebrated by other Americans. As soon as I started becoming politically aware, I heard stories about Mexican migrants and noticed similarities and differences with how people reacted.
Then after college I moved to San Diego. On a camping trip in the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California I came across a young migrant. He was extremely hungry and thirsty and desperate and had walked a really long way. That was the first time I’d directly seen a migrant suffering.
People who live far from the border have some plausible deniability. But when you’re living along the border you have none. And it’s a severe humanitarian crisis that’s happening. I think that not reacting to it is a major problem.
JB: Now that you’ve had more experience on the border, are there things that surprise you compared to when you first began studying it?
JW: When I first saw that kid, I understood it was hard to get over or around the border. But I didn’t understand why or how decisions made about border enforcement were making people take these incredibly desperate measures. That was around the time of the most recent wave of major infrastructure development along the border—and at that point I still understood the buildup of security around the border as an inevitability.
The biggest change for me is realizing that things haven’t always been like this. That it’s been a deliberate strategy to make migrants suffer intensely. One of the things we call for at No More Deaths (NMD) is to end the policy of “Prevention through Deterrence.” This is the policy of deliberately pushing migrants into more hostile zones. Traditionally, migrants would cross in more urban areas where it was easier to cross and easier to get a ride once you landed in this country. Then in 1994, Border Patrol enacted Prevention through Deterrence, which deliberately used the terrain as a weapon. That’s where it becomes so dangerous—when you’re forced to walk across the border outside of urban areas, which can take anywhere from two days to three weeks, all while being hunted by an agency with over twenty thousand officers. Since 2000 there have been over six thousand human remains found. Many have not been found. They are who we [at NMD] are calling “the disappeared.”
FC: I wholeheartedly agree with John about Prevention through Deterrence. Whether the original intention behind pushing migration into the desert was malicious or misguided doesn’t matter anymore, because it has become a savage and brutal policy by any measure. And since it became policy we’ve been stuck with a patchwork of solutions to deal with the consequences.
JB: Francisco, in an essay you wrote for Ploughshares, you relate a conversation with your mother where she warns you about losing your “sense of purpose” while working for the government. How did working as a border-security agent change your own views—either about the border or about the government?
FC: Initially, I saw the Border Patrol as an extension of my education. I thought I would get answers to all these big, divisive questions about the border. How did my experience meet that expectation? I feel like I left with so many more questions than I came in with. In college, I had some nebulous idea that a solution was possible. Perhaps I imagined some form of comprehensive immigration reform paired with an economic Marshall Plan for Mexico. But given the hostile and embattled way that so many people view the border, I recognize now that many of the ideas that might have looked good on paper to me during college are untenable in reality. So the situation seems to me very dire, even more dire than it did going in.
That’s a pessimistic outlook. But I would add something here: it was interesting to hear John describe how seeing that man in the desert humanized this issue for him and changed his engagement with it. My big takeaway from my work on the border was similar in that the biggest impressions I left with were the human interactions I had with border crossers, and the simple realization of how truly vast and terrifying these desert spaces are to traverse. And now as a writer a big part of my job, as I see it, is to humanize this issue. Much of my writing seeks to describe individual interactions, because that’s something I think gets lost in our debate about the larger issues.
JB: One side is humanizing the immigrants. But your experience also puts you in a position to humanize the border-patrol agents.
FC: It shouldn’t be surprising but it probably is to some people to hear me say that so many of the agents I worked with were among the most compassionate, humanitarian, intelligent, caring people that I’ve ever known. I was in the academy with agents who had master’s degrees, agents who had owned their own businesses, and agents who were just eighteen years old and had only ever worked at Dairy Queen before joining the patrol.
One thing people don’t realize about the Border Patrol is that it’s the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country. So there are more agents in the Border Patrol than there are in the FBI, ATF, DEA, etc. As in many such institutions, political leanings skew conservative. But in a group of more than twenty thousand people you can’t make blanket statements about them all being white racists who are out to bash the heads in of border crossers. Many people are shocked to learn that nearly half the agents are Hispanic.
JW: Can I jump in? I’m sure there are some agents with master’s degrees and some who are business owners and all that. But it doesn’t matter to me who the agents are. Of course there are smart, compassionate people and of course there are terrible racists. But in the end I see border-patrol agents as hired guns for a murderous political agenda. The agenda is exclusive and racist, and in the end it ends up murdering people.
Besides loving one border-patrol agent—Francisco and I are friends—I don’t care who the agents are. I see what the agency does, and that’s what matters.
FC: I agree that the institution and the structure of the Border Patrol can be prone to enacting violence. On the other hand, to John’s argument that it doesn’t matter who these people are, that they’re hired guns, I’d say it does matter, in the same way it matters who these migrants are. I think about all the individual encounters I had and it matters who the agents are in the same way it matters who the man John encountered in the desert is.
JW: I think it matters who the migrants are because they are the ones being clumped and thrust into a marginalized group. Border agents might suffer some classist or racist attitudes at home, but on the whole they are the aggressors; they’re the ones enacting the violence and marginalization that ends up killing and maiming people. Right now I don’t think our priority should be to humanize the Border Patrol; I think it should be to humanize the migrants, and to stop the Border Patrol policies that are dehumanizing them. The humanity of the border-patrol agents is not, I don’t think, under threat.
JB: John, you’ve expressed support in the past for “open borders.” Can you describe how you see this policy working?
JW: The first thing most people say about open borders is how it would be chaotic; schools would be overrun, hospitals unable to handle new patients, etc. I don’t think that’s true, but my first response is that things are already chaotic. They’re chaotic for the people who are trying to cross, and in large part that chaos is caused by U.S. policy (or its legacy) toward the places they’re fleeing from—Central America, Haiti, etc.
What would it be like to have open borders? It’s hard to say. We’ve had some natural social experiments with large influxes of immigrants. The most famous is the Mariel boatlift people leaving Cuba in 1980 and coming to Miami. One hundred twenty-five thousand people came to Miami in a short period of time, and studies showed that wages did not decline, unemployment did not rise, the schools were able to handle it. There was some wage decline among native-born citizens without a high-school education, so maybe some demographics would suffer. But we could compensate the people who suffer negative effects, and economically (as well as ethically) it would be a net positive.
If we had open borders, we’d see a population spike in some areas, but even if the same percentage of people came who landed in Miami in 1980, those people could be welcomed, throughout the country, without overall adverse impact on the population. And those who do see some negative effect (wage decline or increased employment competition) could be compensated through tax revenue, or some other means. Miami could handle it 36 years ago; I think the U.S. could handle it now.
JB: Francisco, what would the idea of a humane border mean to you? If we’re going to have a border patrol, what should it look like?
FC: I think about policy solutions far less than I did after college, before I joined the Border Patrol. But in terms of open borders, for me, we have to first and foremost accept the current reality, and I don’t think that has ever been done.
Migration is, at its heart, an economic decision. The economics of migration is something that’s been irretrievably tinkered with through policy. After the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986—which gave amnesty to migrants already here while simultaneously doubling down on security and enforcement—we began to see the unfolding of unintended consequences which effectively transformed the experience of crossing the border into a true hell. The seasonal and cyclical migration that used to take place became much harder. After 1986, once people made it into the U.S. from Mexico, they were much less likely to return to their home country because of the ever-increasing difficulty of getting back in. But they’ll keep coming, because people leave their homeland out of desperation and necessity.
Since [George W.] Bush, Republicans and conservatives have had this line about securing the border first. And this has been happening—the Border Patrol has doubled in size since 2004. But the staunch position remains that no adjustments will be made in the way we take in immigrants until the border is an impenetrable shield. And I think that’s a very false and deadly way to go about it. The more humane and reasonable way would be to stop people from dying in the desert first, because people will cross that desert no matter how hellacious you make the journey.
JB: What have each of you seen as being effective in terms of educating people on an issue they often bring such strong assumptions to?
FC: The border is usually represented in the national imagination with very little nuance. Like I said, my biggest takeaway as an agent came from interacting with individuals—and, as a storyteller, I’m interested in representing this in a way that acknowledges the very fraught and tragic place we’ve arrived at. This is a more emotional argument, one that many might dismiss as typical bleeding-heart liberal babble, but I think it’s so important.
With regards to that hypothetical West Virginian we talked about earlier: it’s amazing to me how people will allow for exceptions among the people they know. I’ve known people who hold beliefs that seem racist, but they’ll allow for individual exceptions. “Oh you know, the guy who cleans my yard, Ricardo, he’s an honest guy and a hard worker.” Or “I’m anti-immigration, pro-border security. I think illegals are stealing jobs, but my coworker Alberto, his parents are undocumented and they seem all right.”
Once there’s a personal experience and connection between two people, that’s a very powerful place to start.
JW: Humanizing the migrants is critically important: they’re human, they’re people, and as we speak right now they’re in the desert hiding, terrified, desperate, hungry, dying. And they’re people just like us: kids, mothers, normal people. We can’t do enough to humanize them.
At the same time I think we should demonize the Border Patrol as an agency. We should approach it with some of the same tools we’re starting to use to talk about the police. We’re seeing that there are some structural problems with the way the police are interacting with community members, and killing them. But there’s a difference. Personally, I think there are some legitimate things the police do that can theoretically affect the community in decent ways. But I don’t see any legitimacy or necessity for the Border Patrol. Historically the reason for the agency’s existence has been to enact racist, xenophobic and classist policies. That’s still true today.
FC: Regardless of how the Border Patrol was founded and whether or not it should exist, it does exist. And it has many functions we haven’t spoken about in this conversation: e.g. national security and terrorism, the drug war and cartel violence, etc. As relates to the human cost of border enforcement, the relevant question is: Given that we have this institution, how can it be reshaped to address the humanitarian crisis we’ve given ourselves?
Currently, people being rescued from death in the desert are usually being rescued by the Border Patrol. Yes, it can be argued that the very thing endangering the lives of these migrants is the presence of the Border Patrol in the first place. But if our country ever begins the slow march toward immigration reform, the Border Patrol will be the institution best equipped to intercept the people who will still be risking their lives trying to cross the desert, even as policy changes take effect. And it will remain so for as long as it is regrettably and tragically necessary.
JW: There are search and rescue efforts that take place, but they’re not enough, and they are overwhelmed by the agency’s violent interdiction mission. Anyway, we’re trying to solve a problem that we’ve created. You can throw someone out of a boat and then toss them a lifesaver and call yourself a hero. But the first step is to stop throwing them into the sea.