Like just about everything involving the southern border of the United States, Francisco Cantu’s book about his four years as a Border Patrol agent has become caught up in controversy.
In “The Line Becomes a River,” published Feb. 6 by Riverhead Books, Cantu has created an almost poetic narrative of the desolate Southwest landscape, the daily, desperate tragedies of migrants trying to cross it, and the agents trying to stop the crossers.
While Cantu describes his own and colleagues’ kindnesses toward some border crossers — Cantu salves the blistered feet of a woman who gratefully calls him a humanitarian and carries water bottles for those he apprehends — his overarching message is about the “thing that crushes,” how all agents “internalize and externalize” the violence of their jobs.
“To be clear: during my years as a BP agent, I was complicit in perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy,” Cantu wrote in a Feb. 10 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.”
“It’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” he writes in the book.
At the same time, Cantu struggles to assign blame for the violence. “For me, it has become impossible to look at police officers, or Border Patrol agents, and say that they are all bad,” he said in a Chicago Review of Books interview Feb. 14. “Not only because I was an agent, but because of all the people that I knew, and still know.”
“It’s important to remember that in the summer, the entire Border Patrol becomes a search-and-rescue mission,” he told Vox on Feb. 15. However, he said, the U.S. prevention through deterrence policy creates the need for that mission by pushing migrants from heavily patrolled urban areas to the remote desert, where the heat can disorient, parch and kill. The policy “weaponizes the landscape,” he said.
“Border Patrol agents on the ground aren’t writing border policy. But we’re enforcing it,” he said in the Vox interview. “The Border Patrol is simultaneously there to put out the fire, and the institution is what started the fire.”
Even as Cantu wrote about the loud, angry demonstrators on both sides of the immigration debate in Arizona in 2006, his book tour readings have been disrupted by the same passion. In Austin, Texas, on Feb. 12, he declined to interrupt protesters accusing him of being “traitor” who is “normalizing” and “romanticizing” violence against illegal immigrants, according to an Austin Chronicle report Feb. 14. Eventually, he gave up speaking and just signed books.
In San Francisco, activists called on bookstores to cancel readings by Cantu, according to a Feb. 12 report on SFGate, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I’m not here to defend BP. But I am here to listen and learn from the ways my writing may be construed to normalize, eroticize, or beautify border violence, and the ways my voice may amplified at the expense of those who suffer from it,” Cantu wrote on Twitter Feb. 10. “Ultimately, I’m here to work against it.”