Out in the Open

Former U.S. border agent witnessed a 'culture of destruction' first-hand

Francisco Cantú was a U.S. border agent for four years, patrolling the boundary between his country and Mexico. He says he hoped to bring some 'humanity' to the job, but found himself torn between his duties at work and his own moral code.

Francisco Cantú says he hoped to bring 'humanity' to his job patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border

Former U.S. border agent Francisco Cantú documented his experience in his book, "The Line Becomes A River." (Twitter.com/RiverheadBooks)

Francisco Cantú spent four years as a U.S. border patrol agent, policing the Mexican-American border along Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

He started the job in 2008, long before the border became a key 2016 American election issue, and before President Donald Trump's declaration to build a massive wall along the divide.

Remembering the individuals

"The stuff you think of in a law enforcement job, like car chases and drug busts, arresting someone with a criminal record, that kind of thing... all of that happened. But those moments very quickly faded away."

Instead, Cantú says the people he interacted with trying to cross the border are what he remembers.

On one occasion, Cantú recalls picking up a husband and his pregnant wife. They were both lost, without food or water, in a small town after crossing into the United States. 

As Cantú discovered, the woman spoke perfect English and she grew up in Iowa. She left the U.S. to return to Mexico when someone in her family died.

"And then when she became pregnant, she thought: 'I want my child to have the same opportunities that I had. I want them to grow up the way I did in the United States.' And so that's why they were crossing the border."

Cantú connected with the couple. He says it was the first time he encountered someone crossing the border who was pregnant and who grew up in the U.S., just like him.

After he processed them, to be deported back to Mexico, Cantú realized he had forgotten their names.

"That sticks out to me because that is one of the first steps in dehumanizing someone. You lose sight of the things that make someone an individual. And first and foremost, that's someone's name," he said, "To what extent can you separate the individuals and the institutions that they work for?" 

After college, Cantú imagined he could step into the United States Border Patrol and be a force for good, not participating in the "bad bits," as he put it.

Cantú was 23-years-old at the time and spent his post-secondary years studying International Relations and the border. But he wanted hands on experience. He thought working as an agent would help decode the many questions he had about immigration and border security.

"It was sort of this idea that I could bring humanity into this job." 

This is where Cantú felt particular conflict as an agent — between doing the job he signed up for, while also trying to uphold his own humanity and that of the people he encountered crossing into the United States.

'To what extent can you separate the individuals and the institutions that they work for?' 

Cantú says he witnessed a "culture of destruction" in the border patrol that was jarring to him. 

"I saw people destroy people's belongings out in the desert … I saw agents strewing [people's] clothing out across tree tops and rocks … and crushing people's food to sort of drive them out to the road and give up their crossing." 

These behaviours are technically against policy. But Cantú remembers, as a junior agent, being encouraged to do them. He describes the patrol as being trained in destruction and a "wild west mentality."

As a border patrol agent, Cantú has also saved lives, "especially in the summertime when the temperatures climb, the border patrol turns into a sort of search and rescue operation."

However, he believes it's problematic to think of that act as heroic. Cantú says he was part of a system that endangered people's lives in the first place and that sent them directly back to where they risked their lives to flee.  

Acknowledging humanity

Leaving the border patrol was an act of surrender for Cantú. He says he realized he hadn't answered any of the questions he had when he began the job. 

"I left feeling that this issue was bigger and more complex. One of the takeaways is that we negate the complexity and the nuance of the border." 

Cantú says the types of conversations we have about people who cross into the United States from Mexico are too simplistic, that rhetoric like the "flooding of people overwhelming our borders" is problematic.

"We have to acknowledge the humanity of the people that are dying on our doorstep ... You have to grapple with the lives that are being lost on an individual level."

Francisco Cantu wrote about his experiences in the United States Border Patrol in his book The Line Becomes a River.

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Split Loyalty."