Originally aired on PBS on 3/20/19
Some interesting excerpts from Hari and Francisco’s conversation:
Hari Sreenivasan: You didn’t become a border patrol agent to write this book. You had an international policy degree. You say you wanted to see how the world works. You wanted to see where this policy actually — the rubber meets the road, so what happened?
Francisco Cantú: I think there was a lot naivete behind the decision. I imagined I could join the border patrol and do this work for a few years and then sort of leave with all these answers to this big, complex problem because I had seen it from a perspective that probably not a lot of policy makers have seen it from. But, of course, you know, the – I think I also massively underestimated the power of the institution to sort of bend people’s purposes towards its will. And so, going through the border patrol academy, it’s much like any military or law enforcement training where it’s sort of designed to break down your idea of who you are as an individual and rebuild you in the image of a law enforcement agent.
Hari Sreenivasan: You point out that in your view, that the desert has been weaponized against migrants. You are saying that the number of bodies that we find, the number of deaths, it’s almost because the system is designed that way. Explain that.
Francisco Cantú: Yeah, so there’s a policy that was implemented under the Clinton administration called Prevention through Deterrents, and so in the sort of late 80’s early 90’s, the border patrol began to pilot this enforcement technique where, you know, at that time you had a lot of — most migrant traffic was crossing through cities and towns along the border, and so the border patrol response was to sort of throw a lot of manpower right along the border, stationing an agent every half a mile from one another. It completely shut down traffic and pushed it to the outskirts of town, outside of the public eye away from cameras, away from concerned voters. The thinking was, as that policy was adapted into a national policy, that the deserts are so remote and so hostile, there’s no water, there’s rugged mountains, that people aren’t going to risk their lives.
HS: Would a wall work to fix that? Because that seems to be part of the argument; hey, guess what, if we can slow the volume of people, then we will slow, inevitably, the volume of people dying in the middle of the desert.
FC: Well, I mean, actually, a wall has — walls along these border towns have actually exacerbated this problem, right? That’s part of what has caused people to cross through more and more distant, remote, obscure areas. And so, you know, if you did build a wall from sea to shining sea, I think you would only see a continuation of this, right? You would see people crossing on ships and boats. I mean, look at what is happening in the Mediterranean. Militarization doesn’t just come to an end once you complete a border wall, that mentality continues. It has been in place for decades, and really for centuries if you look at the history of westward expansion and militarization in the borderlands.
Hari Sreenivasan: Look, there’s going to be people with more hard line positions on immigration that are going to say, “Ok, this disillusionment that this man has gone through, he is the outlier. If it was so bad, why aren’t we hearing this from so many other border agents? Why isn’t the system rebelling against itself?”
Francisco Cantú: I just don’t think that’s the way institutions work. Institutions rarely change from within. I think that everything is being done from the moment that you sign up at your border patrol recruitment facility and you show up at the border patrol academy, everything is being done to normalize the activities that you are participating in and to sort of desensitize you to the hard realities that you are seeing and participating in. It’s managed to be contained and it’s managed to be politicized in all of these ways that — what an average border patrol agent thinks is not even a subject of debate. How many border patrol agents are even allowed to give interviews? A lot of border patrol agents probably live in fear of speaking out because they have a mortgage, they have families, this is a good job that offers a lot of security, especially if they are coming from these small, rural border towns where there’s not a lot of great employment opportunity.