Francisco Cantú, author of “The Line Becomes a River,” remembers watching the heated rallies engulfing his home state of Arizona. To one side were immigration advocates, activists who demanded the migrants running for their lives through the Sonoran Desert be treated as human beings, regardless of their citizenship status. To the other, were vocal, angry crowds, carrying signs and calling for increased fortification along the divide between the U.S. and Mexico, more Border Patrol agents, and a wall between the two countries.
This was not the 2016 presidential election. This was a decade earlier, in 2006, and the people with the signs ended up getting just about everything they wanted. Cantú was in college at the time, a student of international relations obsessed with untangling the knotted policy fights that surround the borderlands. After graduation and a stint at a non-profit, Cantú concluded there was a world of information critical to understanding those fights that was beyond his grasp. So, at 23-years-old, Cantú signed up for the U.S. Border Patrol, joining one of the final waves of new recruits in the last major push to bolster the size of the agency.
Cantú’s mother opposed the decision. A former federal employee herself, she reminded her son that his employer was a paramilitary organization, and that such organizations have a way of bending, stretching, and breaking the moral limits of even the most principled of employees. “You must understand you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people,” she warned.
Self-assured and idealistic, Cantú told himself that he would be one of the good ones. His grandfather was born in Mexico, he spoke Spanish, he came from the border — maybe, down the line, he could bring his unique experiences to bear to change policy for the better, to help people. “I’m not going to become someone else,” Cantú assured his mother.
Over the next four years, as he patrolled the vast expanses of the American southwest, where U.S. enforcement strategies have driven migrants into some of the country’s deadliest terrain, culminating in thousands of deaths, Cantú was proven wrong. While he was granted the ground-level view of immigration enforcement that he had been looking for, it came at a cost. There was no way to be half-in, he learned. When you become a cog in “the thing that crushes” — a name Cantú later gave to the U.S. immigration enforcement apparatus — your good intentions have a way of evaporating and you become implicated whether you like it or not.
Sitting on a stage in the ornate Wachenheim Trustees Room at the New York Public Library earlier this week, Cantú was thousands of miles from the desert and a world away from the life he used to live. His green uniform was gone, replaced by a sharp ensemble of blue. Cantú was in town to promote his new book. Broken into three acts, the memoir details Cantú’s decision to join the Border Patrol and the psychological unraveling he experienced during his time on the job, which eventually led to his exit from the agency. It ends with Cantú outside of law enforcement, working to support the family of a friend caught in the machinery of deportation.
In the week since “The Line Becomes a River” was released, Cantú has appeared in a nonstop string of media interviews. The book has enjoyed critical acclaim, but it has not been without controversy. In California, Bay area activists called on local bookstores to cancel Cantú’s readings on the grounds that he was a cop, and cops deserve no sympathy, particularly at time when millions of immigrants across the country are living in fear of law enforcement. The readings were not cancelled. In Austin, Texas, demonstrators called Cantú a “traitor,” and accused him of profiting off migrant pain. The radical news website It’s Going Down, further argued that Cantú possess an “insidious ability to minimize complicity,” and that he has “built his career and fame as a writer through participating in the culture of cruelty that typifies Border Patrol.”
The broader sentiment behind the pushback is not difficult to understand. In recent years, the Border Patrol hiring surges that Cantú was part of, which President Trump seeks to repeat, have been followed by startling increases in serious misconduct by agents. And, as the historian Kelly Lytle Hernandez, author of “Migra,” has noted, the agency’s history is littered with examples of Border Patrol agents serving as a frontline force executing draconian and punishing immigration enforcement policies. Just last month The Intercept highlighted a report by the faith-based humanitarian group No More Deaths, which operates out of Cantú’s hometown of Tucson, Arizona, documenting Border Patrol agents systematically destroying water left for migrants crossing the desert. Hours after the report was published, one of the group’s volunteers was arrested by Border Patrol for providing food and shelter to two undocumented immigrants. More than a half-dozen other volunteers with the group have been hit with federal charges in recent months for leaving water in the desert.
Responding to the criticism he’s received, Cantú tweeted last week, “To be clear: 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.” He added: “I’m not here to defend BP. But I am here to listen and learn from the ways my writing may be construed to normalize, eroticize, or beautify border violence, and the ways my voice may amplified at the expense of those who suffer from it. Ultimately, I’m here to work against it.”
There’s no getting around the fact that Cantú’s work in law enforcement will, for some, render his contributions to the conversation around immigration null and void. In this view, one might argue, Cantú willingly contributed to the problem he wishes to address and conclusions that, yes, in fact, the system is broken are far from revelatory — and certainly do not require participation in that system to prove. But while there’s a coherence to the critique, to dismiss Cantú’s work entirely would be to risk missing out on a unique glimpse inside a closed-off set of institutions with tremendous power.
In the years since September 11, the publishing world has produced a wealth of literature, mostly novels, from veterans who came of age in the aftermath of the attacks and fought in the wars they led to. In a 2015 article for Harper’s Magazine, Sam Sacks made the case that the significant praise these works have received can be attributed, in part, to the general public’s alienation from the wars it underwrites. Sacks also wrote that these accounts are almost always “stories of personal struggle that are built around abstract universal truths,” which typically refuse to grapple with the critical context surrounding the conflicts in which they are set. This appears to be no accident, Sacks added, given that nearly all of the post-9/11 veteran writers who have succeeded in recent years have emerged from the same creative writing and MFA programs.
“I think that what these humanitarian groups are doing by putting water out in the desert, is they’re attempting to fill a deadly void that is left by our border policy,” Cantú said.
Cantú shares some similarities with his counterparts in the veteran novelist community. He, too, is an MFA grad, in addition to a former Fulbright fellow, and “The Line Becomes a River” does detail a story of personal struggle. But there are also some critical differences. Like the war on terror, the interlocking conflicts along the border are at times regarded as abstractions among those who are removed from its realities. But unlike the wars abroad, the disaster at home has yielded few firsthand, literary accounts from officers and agents tasked with fighting that fight (though perhaps that will change as the face of U.S. immigration enforcement evolves).
“The Line Becomes a River” provides a rare window into that world, but Cantú also attempts to go deeper, reflecting on the border itself and the clichéd narratives that surround the region. Woven throughout his personal story is a deep body of research and critical analysis that seeks to explain how the status quo came to be. And while reasonable minds can disagree on whether he’s succeeded, Cantú, in both his book and public comments, has clearly attempted to address the underlining conditions that made his experience what it was, along the way demonstrating a willingness to publicly challenge the mission of his former employer.
In a passage reflecting on what it meant to become “good” at his job, Cantú writes, “It’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.” While Cantú says that he never took part in the practice, the fact that he was part of a force that would intentionally increase the likelihood of migrant deaths was haunting. “I have nightmares,” he writes, “visions of them staggering through the desert, men from Michoacán, from places I’ve known, men lost and wandering without food or water, dying slowly as they look for some road, some village, some way out.”
In New York City, Cantú’s panel was moderated by John B. Washington, an accomplished border journalist in his own right, who befriended Cantú while working on a novel and volunteering with No More Deaths, the organization that documented the destruction Cantú described. Noting that the group has called for disbanding the Border Patrol, Washington asked Cantú about the legitimacy of his former employer. “I think its only legitimacy is that it already exists,” Cantú replied. “Something like destroying water, that’s an unforgivable act,” he went on to say. “I think that what these humanitarian groups are doing by putting water out in the desert, is they’re attempting to fill a deadly void that is left by our border policy,” Cantú said, adding that the country needs groups like No More Deaths, though he doubts the Border Patrol will ever be abolished.
Over coffee the next morning, I asked Cantú for a fuller explanation on his reason for joining the Border Patrol in the first place. “It’s really hard to answer that question now,” he replied. He had read the critiques, he knew what he was getting into, but in his 23-year-old mind he had come up with a script to assure himself that he could “do the good parts and not participate in the bad parts.” More than a decade later, Cantú acknowledges this was “a defense mechanism against, probably, a much bigger, scarier, realer realization,” namely that, “You can’t separate who you are as an individual, really, from the work that you do as part of an institution.”
“I think that disconnect is at the heart of the book,” he added.
The response will no doubt leave some of critics unsatisfied, but Cantú seems willing to accept criticism. During the protests in Texas, The Austin Chronicle reported that he quietly listened to the demonstrators’ complaints, without attempting to shut them down. “I have plenty of opportunities to speak,” he said. “I have a book in the world.”
While those opportunities are available, Cantú remains intent on making at least a couple things clear. First, that there’s a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding along the border every day. And, second, that the so-called big picture issues of immigration can distract from the individual human stories. And that if those stories aren’t known or heard, then the conversation becomes hollow and false. Addressing a core criticism of his own book, one centered on the question of who gets to have their stories told and who tells them, is part of that process, Cantú added. “I totally agree that the voices that we need to be listening to are the voices of the undocumented. Those are the people that being the most affected by this and those are the people who are being diminished by the current climate and debate,” he said.
“It’s so weird,” Cantú told me, to see the same uninformed fights that led to his career in the Border Patrol playing out all over again. “We’re literally doing the same thing, expecting different results,” he said. It’s mid-2000s Arizona all over again. The only difference now, Cantú argued, is that there’s more rage. “It’s worse,” he said. “It’s crazy.”