This essay is adapted from a new afterword to the paperback edition of The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, to be published by Riverhead in February.
In the summer of 2018, as the press began to cover stories of family separation following the implementation of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, Americans were forced to grapple with the human cost of border enforcement at a national level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest outcry came in response to photographs that distilled the policy’s cruelty into images of children crying at the feet of armed border guards and sleeping on bare floors inside cages—soon after their viral circulation, the president was forced to issue an executive order reversing the practice of separating families. That reversal, we have learned in recent months, was only partial, and has done little to address the underlying cruelty of our border enforcement practices—a point made newly clear just over a month ago when a group of Central American asylum seekers that included barefoot toddlers was met with tear gas at the San Diego/Tijuana border.
Because we are rightly habituated to believe in the innocence of children, because the “othering” of children requires a special degree of callousness, these images and stories have proved difficult to shake off—they have caused us to feel, in brief reverberating moments, a sense of horror at beholding our nation, our institutions, and perhaps even ourselves. But the separation of families and the teargassing of children do not represent isolated events in our history; we are merely seeing a chilling extension of the dehumanizing policies and rhetoric that were already in place.
I joined the Border Patrol more than a decade ago, and when I left in 2012 I had no intention of writing a book about my experiences there. As I settled into a new life, however, I began revisiting the journals I had kept during my years on the job as a way to make sense of where I had been, what I had seen, what I had done and not done, and they became the basis of my memoir, The Line Becomes a River. When I began writing, I knew that the book must be anchored by an exploration of the myriad ways violence becomes normalized along the border.
Living near the border means becoming conditioned to a degree of militarization and surveillance that would cause great alarm in any other part of the country. At immigration checkpoints between distant desert towns, automated cameras snap mugshots of you behind the wheel, and uniformed agents nod at drivers with light skin, waving them on to “have a nice day,” while requiring those who are darker to prove their status, to explain their presence, and, often, to step out of their vehicles while agents rummage through their belongings and invite drug-sniffing dogs to crawl across their car seats. On the open highway, you pass multitudes of green-striped border patrol vehicles driving in either direction, often too many to keep count. Signs warn of “Danger” and advise “Travel Not Recommended,” cautioning travelers that “Smuggling and Illegal Immigration May Be Encountered in This Area” or “Visitors May Encounter Armed Criminals and Smuggling Vehicles Traveling at High Rates of Speed.” Observation towers and trucks equipped with radar and infrared cameras can be seen stationed upon surrounding hilltops, monitoring the desert in every direction. Away from roads, if you are bold enough to go hiking on desert trails, you might encounter low-flying helicopters overhead, reporting your location to nearby agents.
In the borderlands you become conditioned, above all, to living with an ever-present sense of unease, of being watched, of moving through a landscape that has been resignified as a transitional terrain—a place made to exist, literally and figuratively, at the margins. To inhabit such a place is to inhabit a state of in-betweenness, a space where the ground is aggressively claimed, but the people who belong to it, and those seeking to cross it, are rejected. This is a place that the late Chicana scholar and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa described as “an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries,” a place she refers to using the Nahuatl word for middle space, nepantla. “Living in this liminal zone,” she writes, “means being in a constant state of displacement.”1
In the mid-2000s the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben traced the history of the concept known as the “state of exception.” In the name of “security,” governments have for centuries used this political tool of power to suspend or diminish the rights and protections of certain people, in certain places, usually in response to perceived emergencies or crises. Agamben was particularly interested in our post–September 11 era, in which the suspension of traditional rights and protections has been prolonged indefinitely for individuals such as “enemy combatants” in the War on Terror, who are detained in ways that deviate entirely from the supposed inalienable rights established by the Geneva Conventions and US legal norms. Agamben describes these people as being at once bound by, and abandoned to, law.
In Agamben’s framework, the US–Mexico border can be understood as a vast zone of exception, a place where laws and rights are applied differently than they are in any other part of the nation. Since September 11, presidents of both parties have deployed military troops there in response to ill-defined crises. President Trump’s deployment of the National Guard in April, for example, came at a time when border crossings were at historic lows, and his October deployment of active-duty troops was election-season theater designed to stoke the frenzied media coverage surrounding a single caravan of refugees. All the while the US border has remained, by almost any measure, more secure than at any point in recent decades—though we might ask, secure for whom?
The borderlands have slowly become a place where citizens are subject to distinct standards for search and detention, and where due process for noncitizens is often unrecognizable by normal American standards. It is a place where migrants are regularly sentenced at mass hearings in which the fates of as many as seventy-five individuals can be adjudicated one after another in a matter of minutes, after which they are funneled into a burgeoning immigration incarceration complex. It is a landscape often written off as a “wasteland” that is inherently “hostile”—without recognition that it has, in fact, been made to be hostile. Violence does not grow organically in our deserts or at our borders. It has arrived there through policy.
The deadly transformation of our southwestern borderlands began in the 1990s, when Border Patrol chiefs began cracking down on migrant crossings in heavily trafficked urban areas like El Paso and San Diego. Walls were built, budgets ballooned, and scores of new agents were hired to patrol border towns. Everywhere else, it was assumed, the inhospitable desert would do the dirty work of deterring crossers away from the public eye.
Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, told The Arizona Republic that during the adoption of this strategy, which came to be known as “Prevention Through Deterrence,” enforcement officials and policy makers believed “that geography would be an ally to us” and that border crossings “would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.” But migrants continued to cross despite the new perils of the journey, endangering their lives in the desert in ways they had never done before. Even as it became obvious that large numbers of people were risking the crossing, resulting in an unprecedented number of deaths in increasingly remote corners of the desert, the government did not change course. When asked to look back on the policy of deterrence in light of migrant deaths, Meissner told an interviewer, “The idea of abandoning any kind of strengthened border enforcement because of that consequence was not a point of serious discussion.”
Meissner’s damning admission—that the loss of hundreds of lives on America’s doorstep each year was not enough to cause the government to reevaluate its policy—reveals the extent to which the desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who continue to die there every year are losing their lives by design. Deterrence-based enforcement has steered the immigration politics of every administration since that of President Clinton, and has resulted in an official tally of more than six thousand migrant deaths along the southern border between 2000 and 2016. This figure, it should be said, does not account for the thousands more who have been reported as missing and never found, not to mention those whose disappearances are never reported in the first place.
Jason De León, in his book The Land of Open Graves (2015), argues that the government views undocumented migrants as people “whose lives have no political or social value” and “whose deaths are of little consequence.” This devaluation of migrant life is not just rhetorical: in 2018 investigative reporter Bob Ortega revealed that negligent tallying practices by the Border Patrol had failed to account for more than five hundred migrant deaths reported by medical examiners, landowners, and local law enforcement agencies over the past sixteen years. In their absence from official records, these lives were effectively placed in limbo. Lack of certainty about a loved one’s death not only prevents the proper rites of mourning and burial from being observed in the deceased’s home community, but also, as De León says, “allows the perpetrators of violence plausible deniability.”
In defense of its enforcement practices, the Border Patrol often touts search-and-rescue operations as evidence of its humanitarian priorities. I myself once clung to this argument—it was even part of my motivation for joining. As an agent, I signed up to receive EMT training and allowed myself to believe I was helping migrants by administering aid, even as I suppressed doubts about the job and ignored the ways my work helped push migrants toward death. When the Border Patrol demands recognition for saving lives, it’s as if firefighters were asking to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief. To characterize the Border Patrol as a rescue operation is to gloss over a pervasive culture of callousness and destruction: while I indeed worked alongside some deeply compassionate and honorable agents, I also witnessed coworkers scatter migrant groups in remote areas and destroy their water supplies, knowing they’d never be held to account. (These practices have been extensively documented by humanitarian groups and recorded in “The Disappeared,” a report published in 2016 by No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos.)
For the majority of Americans, most of what happens on the border continues to remain out of sight and out of mind. But politicized immigration rhetoric now reaches into every corner of the nation, casting migrants as “animals,” “gang members,” and “rapists” while linking border security to vague notions of warfare and defense against invasion. The institutional culture of the Border Patrol is, now more than ever, a product of such rhetoric and militaristic thinking. Agents refer to migrants as “aliens,” “illegals,” “bodies,” or “toncs” (a slur of dubious origin, either an acronym standing for “temporarily out of native country” or a reference to the sound of a Maglite hitting a migrant’s skull). The agency’s practices divert migrants—people the agents are made to understand as criminals in the same way soldiers are made to understand those positioned against them as enemies—through some of the most deadly and difficult-to-traverse terrain in North America. Thus are agents—already equipped with drones, helicopters, infrared cameras, radar ground sensors, Humvees, and explosion-resistant vehicles—provided with every conceivable advantage over those seeking entry into the US.
The dehumanizing tactics and rhetoric of war have transformed the border into a permanent zone of exception, where some of the most vulnerable people on earth face death and disappearance on a daily basis, where children have been torn from their parents to send the message You are not safe here, you are not welcome. The true crisis at the border is not one of surging crossings or growing criminality, but of our own increasing disregard for human life. To describe what we are seeing as a “crisis,” however, is to imply that our current moment is somehow more horrifying than those that have recently set the stage for it—moments that, had we allowed ourselves to see them and be horrified by them, might have prevented our arrival here in the first place.
In an essay examining the omnipresence of modern borders and the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean, British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders argues that documents such as passports and visas are central components to how our society values and recognizes human life.2 “Identity is established by identification,” Saunders writes, “and identification is established by documenting and fixing the socially significant and codifiable information that confirms who you are.” Those who possess such documentation possess a verified self, “an identity, formed through and confirmed by identification, that is attested to be ‘true.’”
As residents of the “first world,” we are unthinkingly privileged in our possession of a verified self—it means, if nothing else, that our deaths will be recorded. In 2013, shortly after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, the small Italian island in the Mediterranean commonly known as North Africa’s “gateway to Europe.” The island, only seventy miles from the shores of Tunisia, is a central destination on the world’s deadliest migration route, where more than twenty thousand migrants have lost their lives attempting to cross the sea. During his visit the pontiff commemorated these deaths with a homily in which he referred to drowned migrants not as undifferentiated “others,” but as family: “These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death.”
Standing at an altar assembled from remnants of wooden refugee boats, Pope Francis looked out over the port of Lampedusa and asked his audience, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept?” In asking his listeners to consider who is responsible for this loss of life, he describes “the globalization of indifference” through which our societies have become numb to the suffering of others—just as no one individual can be held to account for his or her complacency, the pope argues, neither can anyone be absolved of it.
Saunders calls attention to the pope’s words in order to highlight the parallel anonymities that have come to define immigration crises across the globe: the privileged are as diffuse and unaccountable as the downtrodden are indistinct and unnamed. To push back against the abstraction of migrants’ stories, to reject the dismissal and erasure of their lives, we must begin by grieving their deaths, by speaking their names, by seeing them, hearing them, and amplifying their voices. If our understanding of violence and death along the border can become something visceral, then we may begin to feel, deep within ourselves, no matter how far we live from the border, that what happens there is profoundly unnatural. By collapsing the distance that separates us from the border, we might push back against the idea of its inherent violence, against the unceasing negation of its culture and people, against its continual transformation into a hellscape designed to repel migrants.
In 1992 Jorge Durand, a social anthropologist and geographer at Mexico’s University of Guadalajara, coordinated a series of in-depth interviews with Mexican migrants who had experienced the hard journey to the United States. One of these migrants, a man named Aurelio, crossed the US border dozens of times, only to be captured and sent home by US authorities on every single occasion. “El Norte es como el mar,” he told his interviewer. “The north is like the sea.” He went on to explain, “When I hear people speak [of the United States], I am quickly made to think of the ocean…. When one travels as an illegal, he is dragged like the tail of an animal, like trash. I imagined how the sea washes trash onto the shore, and I told myself, maybe here it’s just like I’m in the ocean, being tossed out again and again.”
What we must understand about Aurelio is that his sense of being regarded as trash is in direct relation to our indifference, to the privileges that have been constructed for us at the expense and exclusion of him and others like him. At the same time, we must recognize that to feel empathy for him and others like him is not enough. “Compassion,” Susan Sontag famously declared, “is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” The same can be said of empathy—we can imagine Aurelio’s pain, we can feel something that perhaps approaches it, and we can even, as Pope Francis suggests, grieve for him, weep for him—but in the end our feelings and our tears are useless unless they compel us to act in a way that might someday improve his situation. The hard truth is that the policies and structures that have taken Aurelio’s body and rejected it, over and over again, will remain in place until we push firmly against them, demanding they be abandoned or remade.
When the violence of our institutions is revealed, when their dehumanizing design is laid bare, it can be too daunting to imagine that we might change things. But what I have learned from giving myself over to a structure of power, from living within its grim vision and helping to harm the people and places from which I came, is that even the most basic act of decency can serve as the spark that will lead one back toward humanity, and even the most basic individual interaction has the power to upend the idea of the “other.” Heeding even these small impulses can serve as a means of extricating ourselves from systems of thought and policy that perpetuate detachment, even in spite of all the mechanisms that have been devised to make us believe in individual and nationalistic self-interest. As obvious as it might seem, to truly and completely reject a culture of violence, to banish it from our minds, we must first fully refuse to participate in it, and refuse to assist in its normalization. When we consider the border, we might think of our home; when we consider those who cross it, we might think of those we hold dear.
—Tucson, Arizona, December 2018