Agony on the Border

Acclaimed Border Patrol memoir by Tucson author Francisco Cantú is harrowing

Francisco Cantú
Francisco Cantú
The Line Becomes A River

Just two days into his new job as a Border Patrol agent, fresh out of the training academy, Francisco Cantú and other raw recruits out in the desert found a cache of backpacks stuffed with clothes and food.

Their supervisor ordered the agents to destroy the provisions.

"I watched as several of my classmates ripped and tore at the clothing, scattering it among the tangled branches of mesquite and palo verde," Cantú writes in The Line Becomes a River, his new memoir of his four years with Border Patrol. "...others laughed loudly and stepped on a heap of food. Nearby, Hart giggled and shouted to us as he pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings."

It was the first—but not the last—time Cantú would see agents deliberately spoil lifesaving food in the remote wilderness; on other occasions he witnessed them slashing water bottles and dumping the water into the parched earth.

The rampage he describes in his book is "damning," Cantú acknowledged last week during an interview at a Tucson café. "As a junior agent new to the field, I hung back and watched. I did not participate. It felt important to me. I said to myself, 'I'm not going to step on people's food or slash water bottles.' But I was watching. I was there."

Eventually, Cantú came to understand that he couldn't absolve himself of guilt for the actions of an agency he was part of.

"After leaving, I recognized that it doesn't matter that I did nothing," he says. And slashing water bottles, as he learned, is common practice in the Border Patrol, despite being forbidden by the agency's policies. "It's part of a culture of destruction," he says.

For four years, Agent Cantú worked deserts in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, routinely capturing desperate migrants and sending them on to a labyrinthine immigration system he didn't know much about. He once apprehended a pregnant woman and her husband, bone-tired from a long trek through the desert, and did the paperwork to send them back home. On one burning August day, he came across a dead body, foaming at the mouth, one of the hundreds of corpses that are found in the southwest deserts every year. The man's young nephew and another boy were alive, but distraught.

As a Spanish speaker and the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Cantú had hoped that by showing compassion to beleaguered migrants like those kids and that pregnant woman, he could somehow make a difference. But even that satisfaction was elusive.

One day he took charge of an injured Mexican woman who had given up her journey and surrendered to the Border Patrol. Her feet were burning with silver-dollar size blisters, and Cantú carefully disinfected and bandaged her wounds. She watched him as he worked.

"'Eres muy humanitario, oficial' (you're very humanitarian, officer), she told me," as he writes in the book. "I looked down at her feet and shook my head. 'No,' I said, 'I'm not.'"

Wracked by guilt and despair, and tormented by nightmares about death, Cantú left the agency in 2012.

Cantú's lyrical and haunting new book has been widely reviewed, but not without some sharp criticism, and he's done multiple high-profile interviews, including with PBS and NPR. Coming back home to Tucson after a weeks-long book tour. Cantú, 32, will appear at the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend. 

"I was prepared for backlash on the right," he says, and there has been social media pushback from Border Patrol agents, who've groused that he was just an agent who couldn't cut it, and now is trying to make a buck at his former colleagues' expense. But the greater criticism has come from the activist left, he notes, for working for the Border Patrol at all.

Shouting protestors at a bookstore in Austin accused him, among other things, of profiting from the sufferings of families he'd torn apart. Cantú sat down and listened to their criticisms, but after a similar disruption in San Francisco, an Oakland reading was canceled.

Cantú understands the anger. "I was complicit in perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy," he wrote in a tweet. "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."

The reason he joined the Border Patrol, he writes, was to understand the border and find some answers to the conundrum of immigration. He'd studied the border and international relations at American University, but he itched, as he told his dubious mother, "to be on the ground, out in the field, I want to see the realities of the border day in and day out...I don't see any better way to understand the place."

Once he quit, he began writing partly to make sense of his own harrowing experiences. But that goal evolved. Writing it as a book while working toward an MFA in the UA's creative writing program, he wanted "first and foremost to present the border as a place of complexity," he says, and to "reject the simplicity" of President Trump's oft-repeated plan "to build a wall" in a region scarred by hundreds of miles of already-existing border walls.

His second objective, he says, is to "call into question the policy of enforcement through deterrence. Hundreds of people die [in the borderlands] every year. Crossings are down, but deaths are up." (A recent United Nations study calculated that deaths borderwide rose in 2017 to 412 bodies found, despite a 44 percent drop in the numbers of border crossers apprehended by Border Patrol.)

Cantú favors protest against border policies, and points to the success of social media campaigns, such as the widely seen video released online by No More Deaths showing Border Patrol agents slashing water bottles and dumping the water in the desert. He's also making plans to contribute a portion of his book earnings to humanitarian aid groups in the Southwest.

Since he returned to civilian life, he's also learned—painfully—about the real-life consequences of harsh border policies on undocumented families. The final third of the book zeroes in on Cantú's friendship with a co-worker he calls José, a hardworking father of three boys.

José returns to Mexico to be at his dying mother's bedside, and on the way back home to Tucson he's caught crossing the border. Processed through Operation Streamline, he serves a month behind bars, then is quickly deported to Mexico.

Cantú tracks José down in Mexico. His friend explains to him that the border wall, no matter how big, will never stop anyone as determined as he is to return to his family.

"I will walk through the desert for five days, eight days, ten days, whatever it takes...they can lock me away, but I will keep coming back," José says. "I will keep crossing, again and again, until I make it, until I am together again with my family."

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