Earlier this year, in partnership with the New York Public Library, Guernica brought contributors Francisco Cantú, Lauren Markham, and John Washington together to discuss Cantú and Markham’s debut books, The Line Becomes a River and The Far Away Brothers, and the subject they both concern: the border between the United States and Mexico. Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent, grapples with his experience enforcing an immigration system he doesn’t agree with, and the often catastrophic results of those policies for migrants, and even fellow agents. Markham chronicles the journey of two impoverished brothers, both teens, from their home in El Salvador, across Mexico, the desert, and the border to Oakland, California.
In any consideration of the border, and of American immigration policy with respect to it, the desert itself—beautiful, wild, and deadly—looms large. It is the greatest hurdle, both for the migrants attempting to enter the United States and for the government that seeks to keep them out. For hundreds of migrants every year, that march into the desert is the last thing they’ll ever do. We have enlisted the borderlands themselves into our war; the desert has become an unwitting participant. But at what cost?
In this sprawling conversation at the New York Public Library, shortly after the publication of Cantú’s memoir and Markham’s expansive history of border walls in Harper’s Magazine, they discussed their own work, the inhumanity of the system they came to know so intimately, and what we can do to begin to affect change in a system that is, on the one hand, hopelessly bureaucratized, and on the other bizarrely spontaneous, amorphous, and personal.
John Washington: We have these two books, The Line Becomes a River, by Francisco Cantú, and The Far Away Brothers, by Lauren Markham that have a lot of interesting parallels between them. They’re both about immigration and neither is about researchers or authors delving into a story. Both authors are very much integral to the story. Lauren, you were teaching at the international high school when you met the Flores brothers—whom you profile very deftly in your book— and you helped them navigate the legal wilderness. You became a family friend and mentor to them. Paco, the first part of your book is about your time as a border patrol agent. You were arresting and chasing people. Then you flipped over to the other side, and you stayed involved, but in a different respect, when you were helping José—who became a close friend—along with his family navigate that same legal wilderness.
Lauren, this is from the foreword to your book:
“In a time when immigration is in the daily headlines yet is too often reduced to a matter of binary politics—keep them out or let them in, wall or no wall—this book seeks to offer a complex understanding of why immigrants leave their country, what struggles they endure to get here, and the challenges they face setting roots in a foreign land.”
I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the Flores brothers, why they had to leave, how they got to Oakland, and how they crossed the border.
Lauren Markham: Many of us might remember that in 2014, one of the only things we were hearing about that summer was that “all of these kids are flooding across the border and we have nowhere to put them, nowhere to house them.” On one side of the spectrum people were saying the kids were bringing disease, and crime, and gang violence across the border, and then on the other side they said, “This is horrible, how can we treat children this way? These kids are refugees.” At that moment in time, I’d been reporting on unaccompanied minors for several years, first for VQR and then for Vice, and right before that media blitz I was at Oakland International High School, where I spend most of my time, and a colleague came into my office and said, “Hey, we really need to do something about all these kids who have court dates.”
I love the way you say “the legal wilderness”; that’s absolutely how it feels. All of those students had court dates. I’d been reporting on this issue all around the country and meanwhile, under my nose, in the school where I spent most of my time, there were all of these unaccompanied minors who were in our school, unbeknownst to us. And they all had been apprehended at the border, placed into detention facilities, and then released temporarily into custody. Our US policy is to release minors into the custody of adults, but contrary to popular opinion, we’re not just letting them go, they still go through deportation proceedings.
That is the context in which I met the Flores twins. They were some of the young people who had enrolled at Oakland International High School that spring. Overnight, my job completely changed. A lot of what I was doing was supporting unaccompanied minors, helping them find lawyers, helping them figure out their housing dramas, doing a lot of support with mental health. They were telling me that they were leaving home, not as much for this bright future in the United States, but much more under duress,. More because of the violence they’re experiencing in their home country. And the violence—I’m really talking about gang violence in El Salvador—is perpetuated against youth most of all. So it follows that because the vast majority of people who are in gangs and who die at the hands of gang violence are young people, it’s the young people who are leaving El Salvador. One of the Flores twins got on the wrong side of the wrong guy. The twin has to flee, but the family really quickly learns that Twin Number Two looks exactly like Twin Number One, and so he too is at risk. They set out on the road and they take out an astronomical amount of debt. Never having really left their tiny town in El Salvador, they were on their own trying to make it to the United States. Then once they’re in the United States, they’re trying to navigate the legal wilderness and the housing wilderness, and, well, the great wilderness of the US.
John Washington: One thing that especially stuck with me, and this comes later in your book, is the story about the young boy who, to get over the border wall, was zipped into a bag and then heaved over the borderline. I don’t understand how that could’ve possibly happened.
Lauren Markham: He was a student at Oakland International and I was taking him to some appointment. He was signing up for health insurance and telling me how he got here, and I was driving him around, and he goes, “Yeah, they threw me, me tiraron.” And I was so sure my Spanish was wrong, because I didn’t get it, and he totally broke it down and explained it. “We saw a border patrol agent there, we saw a patrol agent there, they threw me, I got out of the bag, and I ran.”
John Washington: A good portion of the early book is actually about crossing experiences, which is a good time to bring in Francisco. We met a number of years ago. I was doing some research for a novel that never went anywhere, and I wanted to talk to a border patrol agent, and a friend of a friend put us in touch. And we met, and I was sort of hoping secretly that you were going to leak me a trove of classified border patrol documents.
We started talking about both of our experiences on and around the border. And we started talking about literature and about Sebald and Bolaño, and hit it off. We played soccer together, and recommended books and read each other’s writing. And so, knowing you, Paco, some of the things that you did as a border patrol agent were really disturbing to me. And it was really hard to read them. I know it disturbed you, too, and I know a lot of the book is about you dealing with that. Now that you’ve written this, what is this book to you? Is it a psychological exposé? I mean, it seems that. It’s not a leaked document by any means.
Francisco Cantú: The book is an attempt to come to terms, not really come to peace, because I don’t think that’s possible, but to have an accounting of those experiences. I think when we think of border patrol we think of border wars, what we see on the nightly news, where it’s a car chase, or a drug bust, these exciting things, but the vast majority of your work is just sitting in a car, bored—but also encounters with these people who are risking their lives to cross the border for a better life. For someone like me, who went into the border control looking for answers, I didn’t join the border patrol to write a book, to write an exposé, I joined with all these questions, hoping that I would see something that would equip me to fix things. This is a very typical twenty-three-year-old—
Lauren Markham: Except a little bit more interesting and braver in a way, because you wanted to get in through the other side to really see it.
Francisco Cantú: The negotiation that’s happening there is really with your own sense of who you are. You have to have a lot of faith in yourself to step into a system like that when you’re twenty-three and to say, I can do all these things, and the entire time I can remain who I am, keep my humanity intact. I can do, somehow, the good version of these things, and then come out on the other side with the answers. I thought maybe I would go on to be a policymaker and I would have the golden mystery that nobody had discovered. But of course what happens when you enter a system like that is that you go through this very long process which is not an accident. The Border Patrol Academy, like the military, like any law enforcement job, is set up to condition you to make normal the violence, subtle and not subtle, that you will be participating in and enacting. And so those things very quickly slip away without one realizing it.
My mother is a main character in this book because she was the one person holding me accountable, reminding me of all of those things that I had said when I joined. And I’m glad you gave the introduction you did to frame these larger conversations that we have, these binaries and political bargaining chips that we talk about. I went into the border patrol with all of those big moving parts that I was trying to break open, right, and discover. But when I left none of that felt significant. It still feels completely insignificant. Most significant to me were the interactions that I had. What stayed with me, what stays with me now, is every single person I arrested and something about them. And I think if every news article that you read had that in it, if you talked about it with every single person you encountered who was undocumented or was a dreamer and you knew about that part of their life, I think we’d be having a different conversation.
John Washington: This book isn’t about policy.
Francisco Cantú: It’s not about policy. The solution doesn’t exist.
John Washington: We all said that we should talk about people and the humans that these policies affect, but at the same time the US is continuing to write these policies. One of the organizations that I’ve been involved with—No More Deaths—recently came out with a report about the border patrol’s consistent destruction of water in the desert. The report calls for the border patrol to be abolished. What legitimacy does the border patrol have, knowing the violence that it enacts?
Francisco Cantú: I think the only legitimacy the border patrol has is that it already exists, and I think we need people like you and No More Deaths to call for it to be abolished. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. My work is seeking to not make excuses for the border patrol but to show it from the inside. An agent isn’t making border policy, but if you see the culture of the border patrol, and you see how that trickles down from the top, you see how something like destroying water is an unforgivable act. What these humanitarian groups are doing by putting water out in the desert is they’re attempting to fill a deadly void that is left by our border policy. This policy is “enforcement through deterrence.” It’s a policy that’s not even an official policy. It’s been unchanged since the nineties, because we haven’t had the political courage to have any actual immigration reform. All we’ve had are these ad hoc executive orders. And so what this does is it pushes people out of the well enforced, walled-off urban areas into the most dangerous, treacherous parts of the desert. And the thinking, back in the nineties, was that it’s so crazy there, nobody’s going to go there.
What we’ve seen, for decades now, is that no matter what hell we have at the border, no matter what obstacle we put, people are going to endure that, especially when their family is on the other side, or when certain death waits for them at home. By destroying the aid that is attempting to fill the gap that is left by that policy, the border patrol has to be held accountable for that. And I think that the larger question is: If we have this agency, and we have to, and we can’t abolish our borders, then what do we do to fix the policies it’s enforcing, first and foremost, and second of all, to change the culture of that agency so that that’s viewed as an unforgivable act, not just by us on the outside, but by border patrol agents themselves?
Lauren Markham: I’m not sure if you see it this way but the border patrol agents are the soldiers in a war that they did not start, right? The piece I just wrote in Harper’s is about walls and the history of walls and border fortifications, and how essentially they’ve never really worked. Hadrian’s Wall didn’t work. The Great Wall of China didn’t work. The US border wall, which, by the way, already exists—it’s quite long already—that doesn’t work. People go around it, they go over it, they go under it. And in a sense, border patrol is just another form of a wall. It’s a wall. And it’s kind of an imaginary ruse, that we think if we build these walls, and if we put these soldiers at the border, people won’t get in. It’s an imaginary stopgap for policies that don’t work. We also have to take into consideration that the reasons people are coming so often have to do with the longstanding impact of US foreign policy. We’ve created problems that then cause people to come.
John Washington: This is a really nice moment in your book. You’re in a morgue in El Salvador, and this is where a lot of people go to look for family members or loved ones who have gone missing, and they’re trying to find them. They go to the morgue and there’s a sheet that’s hung up with photographs of people, of the bodies that have come in. So “if your local police haven’t found the person they’re looking for, you go to the morgue to make another report. The Instituto de Medicina Legal staff affixes the photograph to the wall, along with dozens of others. They hang beneath a plastic cover so clean it reflects the onlooker, a flickering superimposition against the black and white faces of adults and children arranged by date last seen. THESE PHOTOGRAPHS WILL BE KEPT ON THIS BILLBOARD FOR TWO MONTHS, DEPENDING ON SPACE, the sign says.”
It’s sort of a frightening moment. The reader almost sees their own face reflected back at them on top of the faces of the people who have gone missing. And it’s sly and powerful. What are some of the root causes? How do we stop them? After being in the system so long and seeing the whole thing from El Salvador, across Mexico, across the border, all the way to Oakland, where do we start trying to make things better?
Lauren Markham: Right now, the reason so many people are migrating is because of violence. I can particularly speak to El Salvador, but this is true in other countries in Central America as well. The violence that’s happening in El Salvador right now is a direct outgrowth and kind of mutation of US foreign policy during the Salvadoran Civil War, right? We bolstered a horrendous government in El Salvador in the eighties. That government, we funded them, we gave them guns, we brought their soldiers here and trained them and sent them back, and they perpetuated horrifying scorched earth campaigns against a lot of poor villagers. People fled by the hundreds of the thousands, by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands. People fled to the United States, and that’s where the gangs were born. MS-13, the Salvadoran gang, was born in the United States. Then we deported gangsters back to El Salvador, and that’s where the gang happened. So it’s sort of this horrendous churn. What are the choices that we’re making now in our foreign policy? I think about what we’re doing in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, or in Syria. Those chickens will come home to roost. That will come back to haunt us. What is happening now in El Salvador and here is a haunting of our past. This is a very powerful ghost of what we did decades ago.
Francisco Cantú: I think another ghost of what we did decades ago is building a wall or hiring more border patrol agents. I was in college at this formative time in my life, during the loudest iteration of this conversation, and we passed a “build the wall” bill in 2006—it’s called the Secure Fence Act. And that’s the act that gave us more than seven hundred miles of barrier along our southern border. We had a huge hiring boost in the border patrol. I was part of that hiring push. I came in at the tail end of that during the Bush administration. Trump released his budget recently, I was asked about that in some interview—if we hire two thousand more border patrol agents, if we throw all this money at the wall, but we don’t change the border policy, well, then, we already know what’s going to happen. We know. We’ve seen it.
John Washington: Could you talk a little bit more about some of the violence happening across the border?
Francisco Cantú: There’s this passage in Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others where she’s talking about an example from the Balkans, I think, and she gives the example of this woman who watches the evening news every night in her village, and her village is at the edge of this area that’s being consumed by war. And she watches it on the news every night and she calmly is sitting and calmly eating her dinner in front of the television and watching the village next to hers be ravaged by war. I think that’s what we do. That’s how disconnected we are. Especially living in the borderlands, I mean, you live in some place El Paso and it’s confounding how you’re even just driving through on these freeways to your job and looking at all of the buildings in Juarez… But what I became interested in in the book obviously was interrogating my own participation in violence and the way that I normalize it in my own life, but also the way that we normalize it in all of our lives. I think that it happens on so many levels, even the language we choose to talk about it: a flood of migrants, a cat-and-mouse game at the border. Even in the Spanish language it happens too: there’s pollos and polleros, chickens and chicken ranchers. And so all of these things obscure that these are individuals, and I think that we’re all complicit. We weren’t all in the border patrol. But we all accept that, or have it wash over us without reacting to it. I think that it’s important to recognize, for example, that when we talk about immigration reform, we talk about the dreamers especially, because it’s the most sympathetic group. It’s the one group now that we have that it seems people can agree on. But what we don’t talk about is the fact that hundreds of people every year die in the desert. That’s not a bargaining chip, but it should be and we need to fix that first because that’s a humanitarian crisis. We could shape the narrative by demanding to know these names, not just these numbers, and demanding that that stuff gets reported. Why don’t these names run in our local newspapers? I live in Tucson; I never, ever know how many people die that week in the desert.
Lauren Markham: Does that feel by design? Because I find that actually researching it is challenging.
Francisco Cantú: It does feel by design, by being left out of the design. I think that even the way we record border deaths is ad hoc. Every county has their own system. So, Pima County, where I live, they have a very organized way of handling this. But there are these counties in Texas where it’s literally one coroner and then all of sudden there’ll be a summer when two hundred bodies show up in their county. So there’s no federal system for handling the effects of federal policy and the deaths that federal policy is causing.
John Washington: Was it expressly articulated that the border patrol strategy was going to be murdering people? No, but such a dehumanizing lack of empathy toward other people builds up toward a culpability that I think is by design.
Lauren Markham: Or a convenient, helpful kind of tool for bolstering this apparatus.
Francisco Cantú: We know all of this now. It’s all right before us, and it has been.
John Washington: What can we do?
Francisco Cantú: Talk to the people in your community and get to know the people in your community. Bail a friend out of jail if he gets arrested and he’s undocumented and he can’t. Find somebody legal representation. Or, of course, if it’s not quite that close to you, look at these organizations that are doing that kind of work. You all live in New York City, so you have a wealth of that. Don’t just give money to those organizations. Show up to volunteer.
Lauren Markham: I second all of that. These are often people whom the system has rendered invisible or who want to remain invisible because that’s where safety is. So becoming aware of the immigrant communities in your own community is important. In terms of a solution, I’m going to give a short answer which is also the easy answer. Until we address root causes, no matter what we do at the border, it will just be for show. And it will actually make things worse. It will push people more into the desert. The more we complicate the border and the more perilous the border becomes, we’re enriching narcos, and we’re making the journey more expensive, so more and more people in El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras and Mexico are taking out higher and higher loans in order to pay their way, which then further impoverishes their family, which then further compounds the root causes that cause them to leave. So whatever we do at the border, unless root causes are addressed, nothing’s going change. So much of my time has been spent sitting on waiting room floors of attorneys or frantically calling everyone I know, asking, “Well, can you help, can you help take on this kid?” If you’re an attorney, connecting with a legal organization like KIND or Vera or The Young Center and giving of your time and services—volunteering to help accompany kids to court is great. Also, giving money to those organizations because they need to hire lawyers so that they can give representation to kids. No immigrants are given attorneys for their immigration cases. And the odds of winning your case without a lawyer is pretty low.
John Washington: Or become a lawyer.
Lauren Markham: Yeah, or become a lawyer.
John Washington: Become a judge actually. Become an immigration judge.
Lauren Markham: That’s a great idea.
John Washington: Do folks have concise comments or good questions?
Audience Member: I don’t feel I can call you Paco because I don’t know you, but I really would like to know, having read your book, whether you’re still in touch with José’s family, or have you seen José himself?
Lauren Markham: I also want to know that.
Francisco Cantú: I can tell you that José is alive. I can tell you that I’m in touch with him, but it makes him unsafe to tell you any more than that. He is living a very precarious life. It doesn’t matter on which side of the border he is; that life is very precarious. Seeing José’s story unfold and becoming close with his family and his boys, who had never crossed the border, seeing all the ways that the border was brought to them, shows us how these borders work. It’s really hard to understand that the kinds of fear that undocumented people are living with is the kind of fear that we would imagine someone in a faraway war-torn country living with. I know undocumented people who are afraid to leave their homes, I know undocumented people who literally think a helicopter is going to land in their yard. They think that’s legitimately in the realm of possibilities. The helicopter will land in their yard and take their kids away.
Audience Member: Have you had a reaction from any of your fellow border patrol agents now that you’ve done this wonderful book about them?
Francisco Cantú: There are a lot of reactions that I don’t hear. I sent the book to a handful of colleagues, mostly because they’re represented in it in some way or because I was close with them, and they all say, “Oh man, I didn’t know that you were having a hard time.” And they say, “Well, we don’t really talk about that stuff, man.”
Lauren Markham: Were they not also going through a hard time?
Francisco Cantú: One guy called me last week and he apologized to me on the phone. And he said, “I knew something was going on. I knew you weren’t like the rest of us, bro. But I’m so sorry that I never asked.” And I thought, it’s almost not on him. It’s a question about the culture of the agency.
Audience Member: I’m going to sound angry, but I’m not angry. I just want to know, what role do you think toxic masculinity has with the psyche and the actions of the border guards?
Francisco Cantú: In the border patrol, much like any military or law enforcement agency, you see your colleagues performing callousness or just making jokes. And I mean it just goes back to the same kinds of things, the same kind of dehumanizing language that exists, it permeates. I almost think that you have to do that in order to just keep showing up at work every day. It’s deeply tied in with toxic masculinity. I think the way men behave around each other is quite often a performance. I don’t know how you change that. People have been trying to change that within the military—I don’t know if they have, really—but you hear about these different efforts. I don’t have answers for that.
John Washington: Lauren, I was thinking a lot about gender reading your book too, and there was the brothers’ sister, who got trapped in a different way because she was the woman.
Lauren Markham: She ended up with a lot of the responsibility back home. It’s funny because Oakland International High School, we’re about 60 percent boys. The vast majority of them are unaccompanied minors, and about 70 percent of unaccompanied minors are young men. Young women are at incredible risk in El Salvador, but males are more targeted for gang recruitment. Also there’s this idea that “We’ll send our boys because they’ll be the breadwinners,” right? About twelve percent of our school is from Yemen, and it’s the same deal.
What that means in the case of my book is that the sister stays home and is the one who is dealing with going to the money lender every month and sort of saying, “We don’t have the money.” She’s taking care of her aging parents, she has two kids of her own, and she’s sort of holding the whole deal together. You could tell she was really angry at her brothers. And my perspective was stuck in this point of compassion for them. But from her perspective she’s probably thinking, “Um, my brothers got to go to the United States, they have lawyers, they’re trying to apply for papers. I see their Instagram, and I see that they have fancy clothes and shoes, and I’m stuck here and I can’t afford milk for my baby. And I’m going to the money lender for money that we took out, and we might lose our land.” It was so helpful for me to understand immigration is a cleaving. It’s about who’s left behind or shouldering this kind of burden. The people who have gone have this other kind of burden.
Francisco Cantú: When you asked that question, I was also wondering about masculinity among migrants and among the boys. Ernesto is having these dreams, and he’s traumatized by the crossing, and he’s hiding. I was wondering what you see among migrants themselves.
Lauren Markham: There’s so much pressure on young men to be men in this way that I have so much compassion for because you can almost see how painful it is for them to be performing masculinity and what they think of as the “right way” to be a man. “I have to fight back, someone talked smack about me, this person said this thing.” There’s just so much around trying to rise to the occasion of manhood, and harming yourself in the process.
Audience Member: How do you guys feel about the monetary aspect of these issues? I think it’s a huge business for private prisons. I accompany people to immigration with a coalition called the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York. They do amazing work. It’s really emotional because you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve been to a couple of them and thank God no one has ever been detained, but I think it’s a money thing. Building this wall is going to create money for whomever contractors are going to do it. And we keep generating money for private prisons by imprisoning these people. Thirty-two-plus-thousand per day.
Francisco Cantú: I think you’ve probably maybe seen these detention facilities more than I have, but I wrote a very short piece for Harper’s about Operation Streamline, which exists in most parts of the Southwest. It’s a mass deportation trial where up to seventy-five migrants come before a judge and enter into a plea deal and are sent for thirty to 180 days into these prisons. And so, an interesting thing that was happening last year, when I was doing this reporting, is that crossings were down. They had fallen so low that there weren’t enough people to justify Operation Streamline under the existing protocols that they had established for it. There were days, some lawyers were telling me, when only five or six people were in Operation Streamline. And so Jeff Sessions changed the Operation Streamline protocol so that it wasn’t people who were entering the second time who were being charged with a felony. It was people who were entering the first time. They literally funneled them into that program so that they could keep that program going, so that they could fill these beds.
Lauren Markham: Something like 75 percent of immigration facilities are privately run. They’re big businesses, they’re making a ton of money. Something that I learned in the course of writing this book is that nonprofit detention facilities for minors are contracted by the US government. But these nonprofits are often mega nonprofits, and one of the executive directors of this program called Southwest Key made $600,000 one year.
Audience Member: Francisco, the specificity of your position both as a Mexican American and a border patrol agent puts you at risk of getting pushback from both sides, and I think if people would take the time to really read the book and experience how vulnerable you are in these moments of reflection, it’s really commendable. Somebody asked earlier: What can we do? This is what we can do. You guys are writing these important stories to remind us about the humanity of these people, and I think it’s tremendous that you’re doing that. So thank you. And I hope you get the support.
Francisco Cantú: It’s a strange position to be in, because I’ve humanized myself and some of the articles that come out are emphasizing, “Hey, here’s a border patrol agent with a heart of gold. Look at this guy, great guy.” But I think that’s dangerous. John once made the argument that we don’t need border patrol agents to be humanized. We wear the uniform of the United States government. We have great salaries and benefits. Yes, it’s a hard, crazy, insane job but every single thing in our society is set up to minimize the migrant. And so I do think that that’s what the takeaway has to be.