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How this former Border Patrol agent learned to see through the eyes of those trying to cross

In "The Line Becomes a River," Francisco Cantú describes his experience as a Border Patrol agent in the deserts of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Written as a collection of dispatches, Cantú shows how the job became a difficult balancing act between his sense of shared humanity and the demands of law enforcement. The author joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation near the border.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, as policy debates over immigration continue, we get a different view of the border, a firsthand account of the realities of life there.

    Jeffrey Brown takes us to Southern Arizona for the latest from our “NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The landscape is rugged, mountainous, scorched by the sun. But out there, among the dust, brush and cacti, there’s also surveillance cameras, sensors, and people, even if you can’t see them, in an often deadly standoff with the elements and one another.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    It’s like when you look out at the ocean, and you’re like, oh, my God, what a vast, unfathomable place, expanse.

    And so when I think about that vastness, you think about trying to find someone in that vastness. People who haven’t been here have a really hard time conceiving of that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Francisco Cantu spent four years as a Border Patrol agent working in the deserts of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. He describes the experience in a new book, “The Line Becomes a River.”

    We met him some two hours south of Phoenix, about 30 miles from the border. He grew up not far from these lands, but felt disconnected from the realities on the ground.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    I had all of these questions that stemmed from my time in college, just big, big questions that a lot of us are still talking about with respect to immigration and border policy.

    And I thought that doing this kind of a job, this kind of work, being out on the border day in, day out would give me answers to those questions.

    It’s Black Mountain right here. That windmill over there, that’s Darby Well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He learned the lay of the land drawing his own maps and sketches and an understanding of what he was looking for.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    It’s kind of an interesting way to look at the landscape. You’re sort of being taught to look at the landscape as people who are crossing would.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As we walked the rocky terrain, sidestepped saguaro and followed a sandy wash, we found tangible evidence of a crossing attempt.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    Here’s a carpet shoe.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The carpet shoe.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    That has just been carried down this wash and tangled up in this bush. So, it’s a piece of carpet that’s been cut out, shoe size, and then you just strap this over your shoes, so that you don’t leave any — so that you don’t leave like a discernible footprint in the sand, because, for the agents, it’s really easy to sort of spot the grid of your sneakers or anything like that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rather than a policy book, Cantu has written what he calls dispatches, giving us the feel of a place few see, the violence, sadness, and occasional humor of his encounters with those trying to cross, drug smugglers, for sure, but, more often, desperate people in a fight for survival in the dirt, like a middle-age mother who’d been left behind by her group and was out of water.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    She had like these silver-dollar-sized blisters on her feet. And I was cleaning the blisters and bandaging her feet. And she thanked me. I remember her thanking me. She’s like, what you’re doing is very humanitarian.

    I just thought like, I’m — at the end of the day, like, I’m putting you in a cell and I’m sending you back to this place that you quite literally are risking your life to flee.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He writes of how it became a difficult, often painful personal balancing act between a sense of shared humanity and the strictures of law enforcement.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    “There are days when I feel am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks full of food and clothes.”

    It’s not a great place to be lost.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Later, we made our way towards the border crossing, Organ Pipe National Monument, with mountain ranges in the distance.

    You drove these roads so much, right? And now you come back and drive. What do you see now?

  • Francisco Cantu:

    When I look out at this landscape, it still looks very beautiful to me. But, at the same time, I’m also like hyperaware, you know, any time I’m close to the border, of the fact that, you know, I’m being watched by Border Patrol or by scouts up on hilltops.

    And I’m also hyperaware of the fact that, you know, there’s people out here right now.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    At the border in this area, a fence some 20 feet tall, rusty and patched by sheets of wire mesh, riveted back in place over holes cut by migrants.

    Is this where you’re describing the fence being kind of literally lifted up?

  • Francisco Cantu:

    Yes, underneath this dirt, these are just panels that sort of slide between these two steel barriers. And if you can kind of uncover it a little bit, you just put a tire jack underneath there, and you can — and you can pry it up. And people will drive cars underneath these things. They will lift it up and drive a car under.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Cantu came to believe that no wall will ever keep people out.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    In my opinion, it’s not that we need to do more of this or have a big concrete wall, instead of a big iron mesh wall.

    Whatever big, long barrier you put here, people are going to find a way around that. They’re going to find a way up, over, under, around.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Cantu left the Border Patrol in 2012, and now works at the University of Arizona. He says he wants to continue showing the realities of the border and raising concerns, even without offering policy prescriptions of his own.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    I still have a lot of the same questions that I came into the Border Patrol with. I really see the border as, like, a microcosm for all of these huge issues that we’re grappling with as a nation and as a global society. And so I have no urge to look away from the border.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    After a few miles, the high fence here becomes nothing more than large metal barriers. And we came to this monument, once the only kind of marker separating the two countries.

    For Cantu, it’s another symbol of what this border has become.

  • Francisco Cantu:

    It became interesting to me to look at how the line was sort of drawn across this landscape that is, I think, beautiful, has its own culture, and is just sort of being slowly riven by this line and becoming militarized, walled, fenced, patrolled, surveilled.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What’s seen and unseen.

    An agent who’s attention we’d drawn warned we were also being watched from the other side by smugglers in Mexico waiting for a chance to move more human cargo.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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