Francisco Cantu opens La Frontera Conference as keynote

Cantu spoke about his experience as a border patrol agent during the Obama administration. MAKAYLA GALLIMORE Staff Photographer

Francisco Cantu thought he could be a humane force in the U.S. Border Patrol. What he found was a culture of cruelty, during the Obama Administration.

“The system is set to break you down as an individual, from the minute you get to the academy,” Cantu said. “You think of people at the border as all criminals, as posing a threat to you. You are meant to think this callous, cruel work is normal. I became desensitized.”

Cantu’s book, “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border,” detailing his experiences working in Border Patrol, discusses the challenge of separating policy from the individuals who implement it. The book was named a top 10 book of 2018 by National Public Radio and The Washington Post. Cantu was the keynote and kick-off speaker Nov. 14 for La Frontera – The Border Conference held Nov. 14 to 16.

“The Line Becomes a River” is “not obviously biased in any particular direction,” said Lisa Leitz – the chair of the peace studies department – although “(Cantu) has taken critique from the right for saying this is a cruel system and he’s taken critique on the left for participating in Border Patrol.”

The book is an account of Cantu’s four years working in Border Patrol and his relationship with Jose, a man who lived in the U.S. for 30 years with his family, but was arrested and deported after a trip to see his mother when she died.

“I studied border issues in school, in Washington, D.C.,” Cantu told The Panther. “I wasn’t a law enforcement-minded person, but (working at Border Patrol), I would have access to these issues of border policy that alluded people. I imagined that I would be an immigration lawyer or a policy maker. With that framework, I convinced myself I could be a force for good within the agency. I imagined that I could be uncompromised in my morals, but I was naive.”

The book explores “how people can take that job and not necessarily be bad human beings, separating the policy from the individuals,” Leitz said.
Describing border patrol agents urinating on backpacks, dumping out water bottles and treating immigrants as if they are criminals, the book points to the “normalization of violence.”

“A lot of our institutions were founded upon ideas of segregation and white supremacy,” Cantu said. “If you look back into history, a lot of institutions are about preserving white dominance, power and dominance of the first world over the third world. It’s more about undoing or reshaping the architecture of those institutions and the rotten foundations of them.”

Currently, Cantu works part-time at the University of Arizona. He coordinates a border studies research residency, which brings students down to the border to get involved with advocacy and social justice groups. He also volunteers at an immigration detention center; he does so to emphasize the importance of being involved and putting pressure on existing institutions, which can lead to reforms.
“When you look at law enforcement agencies, there’s few that are changing from within. It is outside pressure and it’s organizing,” Cantu said. “If someone comes into office who doesn’t demonize people outright, it’ll revert back to what it was and people will feel better. Unless you are continually engaged in the work, it is easier to feel better.”
Cantu’s talk opened a series of events as part of The Border Conference. On Nov. 15, a variety of experts including scholars, journalists, lawyers, activists and artists talked about border issues. In addition to the U.S.-Mexico border focus, there were experts speaking on Russia-Ukraine, African borders and colonialism. An event Nov. 16 featured presentations from 90 students. Tom Kiefer, an artist, worked in the same space as Cantu and was also featured. He worked as a janitor and collected objects that were taken away from migrants, making them into art pieces.
Cantu emphasized the importance of storytelling in conveying issues.
“(The book) has got the ugliness and beauty that a storyteller can do,” Leitz said. “It is inspiring to see someone write a book about their first job and win an award.”