What can we learn from a former border agent?
What is a nation? How we answer the question ripples out to our borders, north, south, west, east and influences immigration and border policy.
If what unites a nation is the idea that we are an outstanding liberal democracy ruled by the majority with rights for minorities, as Paul D. Miller asserts in “The Religion of American Greatness”, then our nation can create a humane and fair border policy. . Indeed, if the nation’s binding history is our liberal democracy, then a fair and firm immigration and border policy might be a much higher priority.
But if what makes the United States exceptional is not our extraordinary success in democracy, but rather a cultural identity, then our immigration policy will treat any foreigner as suspect until they are fully assimilated. It is based on the fear that “we will lose who we are if our culture changes too much,” which Miller considers nationalism, a dangerous ideology that operates on authoritarianism and breeds resistance. Taken to its logical extreme, this suggests that America should depend on the “cultivated habits of the English gentleman of the 18th century” to survive, Miller writes.
But this column isn’t about Miller’s thoughts on nationality. Rather, it’s related to “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantu, a memoir about his years as a border patrol agent in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Cantu’s book is the next selection for the LWVMC’s Well-Read Citizens Brigade, whose next discussion will take place on December 7.
Even though “The Line Becomes a River” came out over four years ago, it’s worth reading (or re-reading). Cantu’s book balances her personal experiences with a multitude of outside voices. His story invites readers to struggle with him, because we often say that our immigration and border policy needs to be reformed. His book provides first-hand accounts to help us ask the necessary questions about how to control our borders.
The US Border Patrol is subject to the winds (or whims) of political change. Within the force and the American public, the debate is implicitly framed as one of the tough law-and-order solutions over “overly compassionate” policies. (Or worse, the misnomer of “open border” policies.) Indeed, as Cantu’s account reveals, border agents themselves and the immigrants they detain are subject to swings in brutality and compassion.
Cantu entered Border Patrol with an unusual “why”. A 23-year-old who studied international relations in Washington, he returned to Arizona and told his skeptical mother, “I’m tired of reading about the border in books. Half-American, half-Mexican, he wondered about the tension between the two cultures and the ever-present threat of death along the border. “I’ll never understand it until I get close to it,” he told his mother, a retired ranger.
“What does it mean to be good at it?” He wondered during training when he realizes he is a good agent. He notes that what is “good at it” has different meanings. It “depends on who you are, depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to become”. He writes when he arrived at deserted camps, the border residents having fled the agents. He and other officers cut up water bottles, threw backpacks and food on the ground, stomped on them and urinated, then set the remains on fire. Being good at his job was learned behavior and meant accepting things he knew were wrong and inhuman.
Cantu struggles with the moral wound the job creates, something he learned from Iraqi veterans who testified that it slowly set in in the years after leaving the battlefield, “when a person has time to reflect on a traumatic experience”.
Cantu’s memoir invites readers into his mental wrangling and also allows us to reflect and discuss. Like many of us, Cantu carries multiple ethnic backgrounds, and his book implicitly asks us to remember America’s founding ideology: the liberal values of the democratic republic.
Behind the debate lie implicit philosophies that contradict each other. A political solution seems to imply that American greatness is based on having a dominant cultural identity, something Anglo-Christian. Another asks what the great American democratic experiment has proven about sustaining an ethnically and intellectually diverse regime? As we citizens wait for a titanic deadlocked Congress to reform border and immigration policy, what is imperative for us? After all, we live in a country where government is by the people, for the people. Everyone.
Everyone is invited to join the Well-Read Citizens Brigade discussion at 7:30 p.m. at the Backstep Brewery on December 7.
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan, multidisciplinary organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of key political issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are welcome to join the LWV where practical work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For more information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.