Cantú was a US Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012, working in the desert along the Mexican border where he detained and mistreated vulnerable migrants. He claimed to be just doing his job, but was haunted by his actions. His memoir The Line Becomes a River (Bodley Head, £14.99) recounts his time at the border and his attempts to leave it behind.
You encountered death, people who had been lost in the desert for days, and children who had been left behind by people smugglers. How do you cope with such traumatic incidents on a day-to-day basis?
Like most other law enforcement or military jobs, the Border Patrol is set up to normalise the violent nature of the work you’re asked to do. The training process is designed to break down your sense of who you are as an individual and rebuild you in the image of a law enforcement agent. By the time you arrive in the field, apprehending migrants and sending them back doesn’t seem outwardly wrong or traumatic or violent – you’ve been preparing for it for months. There isn’t a culture of talking about things with your co-workers, you’re not encouraged to be reflective or show vulnerability, so what happens is that any doubts about what you’re doing get suppressed. You are made to bottle up your compassion, to set aside your sense of humanity. For me, dreams and nightmares became the one thing in my life, other than my mom, that were sending me the message that everything was not all right, that what I was doing wasn’t normal.
You write that your mother looked at you as if you were an apologist after she questioned you about the tactics used by Border Patrol agents. Did you ever feel like an apologist?
Well, when I look back at things now, it’s easy to see that my mother was pretty much right. The justifications I gave her, the twisted logic I subscribed to, it really was that of an apologist. It’s true that individual Border Patrol agents aren’t responsible for making border policy, that they’re just doing their job, but it’s also true that each and every agent is lending themselves and part of their identity to enforce a border policy that is inherently flawed and violent and deadly. For me, this book began as a way to try and grapple with my own complicity and culpability, to come to terms with all the ways that I can and cannot extract myself from the work that I did and the institution I was a part of.
From your experience, what does the US government need to change about the way the border is policed?
The most urgent concern is the lives of those who die trying to cross the desert – you don’t hear people talking about this in their conversations about immigration reform. For decades we have had a policy of “enforcement through deterrence.” By heavily enforcing the easy-to-cross portions of the border, we push migrants to cross in the most rugged and deadly terrain. Hundreds of deaths occur there each year, and those are just the ones that get reported. Anywhere from six to seven thousand migrants have lost their lives since the year 2000. I see that as a complete humanitarian crisis taking place on American soil, and I don’t see our country acknowledging these deaths in the way we should. We don’t read their names, we don’t memorialise them, we don’t mourn their deaths. That’s unacceptable. We have to understand these numbers, first and foremost, as representing individual lives.
Some activists have claimed your book “exploits stories of pain” and profits from the deaths of those who failed to cross the border. What is your response to them?
I think the naïve hope of any writer is that by putting your writing into the world you will a conversation or participate in one that is ongoing. You hope that your work might help move the needle of that conversation in the right direction, that you might encourage readers to interrogate something in a new way. I’m happy that people are thinking critically about my book, and I’m grateful for all the ways it has made me think more deeply about the space my voice is occupying in the current literary and political landscape. When you look at who is given a platform to speak, we very rarely elevate the voices of those who are most affected by immigration and border issues. The people who are risking their lives to cross our border, the people who are living with the daily threat of deportation, those are the people who most deserve to be heard – they have more to tell us than I do, and certainly more than any politician or policymaker.
How do you think the Trump presidency will affect the individuals who are planning to cross the border in the coming years?
The solutions Trump is offering are the very same solutions politicians have been offering for decades – the main difference is that the volume has been turned way up. When Trump talks about building a wall, I think a lot of people don’t realise that we’ve already tried that. People were making the same calls decade ago, and congress passed a “build-the-wall ball,” the Secure Fences Act of 2006. Since then, we’ve constructed 700 miles of fencing along our 2,000 mile border, and I can tell you as a former agent that no matter what kind of “impenetrable barrier” we think we might erect, people will continue risking their lives to find a way over, under, or around it. Last year the administration incessantly bragged that border crossings had fallen to their lowest level in 14 years. What you didn’t hear, however, is that more people ended up dying crossing the border last year than the year before. So, even as less people cross, the crossing becomes more and more deadly. Without meaningful policy reform, that trend will continue.
Do you regret the time you spent on the border?
We cannot change what we have done, so I think it is important not to be bogged down by regret. As my mother told me years after I left the Border Patrol, when I finally came to her to grapple with what I had participated in: “All you can do is try to find a place to hold it, a way not to lose some purpose for it all.”