‘Has Any One of Us Wept?’

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Fran­cisco Cantú

This es­say is adapted from a new af­ter­word to the pa­per­back edi­tion of The Line Be­comes a River by Fran­cisco Cantú, to be pub­lished by River­head in Fe­bru­ary.

In the sum­mer of 2018, as the press be­gan to cover sto­ries of fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion fol­low­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “zero tol­er­ance” im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, Amer­i­cans were forced to grap­ple with the hu­man cost of bor­der en­force­ment at a na­tional level. Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, the great­est out­cry came in re­sponse to pho­to­graphs that dis­tilled the pol­icy’s cru­elty into im­ages of chil­dren cry­ing at the feet of armed bor­der guards and sleep­ing on bare floors in­side cages— soon af­ter their vi­ral cir­cu­la­tion, the pres­i­dent was forced to is­sue an ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­vers­ing the prac­tice of sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies. That re­ver­sal, we have learned in re­cent months, was only par­tial, and has done lit­tle to ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing cru­elty of our bor­der en­force­ment prac­tices—a point made newly clear just over a month ago when a group of Cen­tral Amer­i­can asy­lum seek­ers that in­cluded bare­foot tod­dlers was met with tear gas at the San Diego/ Ti­juana bor­der.

Be­cause we are rightly ha­bit­u­ated to be­lieve in the in­no­cence of chil­dren, be­cause the “oth­er­ing” of chil­dren re­quires a spe­cial de­gree of cal­lous­ness, these im­ages and sto­ries have proved dif­fi­cult to shake off—they have caused us to feel, in brief re­ver­ber­at­ing mo­ments, a sense of hor­ror at be­hold­ing our na­tion, our in­sti­tu­tions, and per­haps even our­selves. But the sep­a­ra­tion of fam­i­lies and the tear­gassing of chil­dren do not rep­re­sent iso­lated events in our his­tory; we are merely see­ing a chill­ing ex­ten­sion of the de­hu­man­iz­ing poli­cies and rhetoric that were al­ready in place.

I joined the Bor­der Pa­trol more than a decade ago, and when I left in 2012 I had no in­ten­tion of writ­ing a book about my ex­pe­ri­ences there. As I set­tled into a new life, how­ever, I be­gan re­vis­it­ing the jour­nals I had kept dur­ing my years on the job as a way to make sense of where I had been, what I had seen, what I had done and not done, and they be­came the ba­sis of my mem­oir, The Line Be­comes a River. When I be­gan writ­ing, I knew that the book must be an­chored by an ex­plo­ration of the myr­iad ways vi­o­lence be­comes nor­mal­ized along the bor­der.

Liv­ing near the bor­der means be­com­ing con­di­tioned to a de­gree of mil­i­ta­riza­tion and sur­veil­lance that would cause great alarm in any other part of the coun­try. At im­mi­gra­tion check­points be­tween dis­tant desert towns, au­to­mated cam­eras snap mugshots of you be­hind the wheel, and uni­formed agents nod at driv­ers with light skin, wav­ing them on to “have a nice day,” while re­quir­ing those who are darker to prove their sta­tus, to ex­plain their pres­ence, and, of­ten, to step out of their ve­hi­cles while agents rum­mage through their be­long­ings and in­vite drug-sniff­ing dogs to crawl across their car seats. On the open high­way, you pass mul­ti­tudes of green-striped bor­der pa­trol ve­hi­cles driv­ing in ei­ther di­rec­tion, of­ten too many to keep count. Signs warn of “Dan­ger” and ad­vise “Travel Not Rec­om­mended,” cau­tion­ing trav­el­ers that “Smug­gling and Il­le­gal Im­mi­gra­tion May Be En­coun­tered in This Area” or “Vis­i­tors May En­counter Armed Crim­i­nals and Smug­gling Ve­hi­cles Trav­el­ing at High Rates of Speed.” Ob­ser­va­tion tow­ers and trucks equipped with radar and in­frared cam­eras can be seen sta­tioned upon sur­round­ing hill­tops, mon­i­tor­ing the desert in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Away from roads, if you are bold enough to go hik­ing on desert trails, you might en­counter low-fly­ing he­li­copters over­head, re­port­ing your lo­ca­tion to nearby agents. In the bor­der­lands you be­come con­di­tioned, above all, to liv­ing with an ever-present sense of un­ease, of be­ing watched, of mov­ing through a land­scape that has been re­sig­ni­fied as a tran­si­tional ter­rain—a place made to ex­ist, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, at the mar­gins. To in­habit such a place is to in­habit a state of in-be­tween­ness, a space where the ground is ag­gres­sively claimed, but the peo­ple who be­long to it, and those seek­ing to cross it, are re­jected. This is a place that the late Chi­cana scholar and the­o­rist Glo­ria An­zaldúa de­scribed as “an un­sta­ble, un­pre­dictable, pre­car­i­ous, al­ways-in-tran­si­tion space lack­ing clear bound­aries,” a place she refers to us­ing the Nahu­atl word for mid­dle space, nepantla. “Liv­ing in this lim­i­nal zone,” she writes, “means be­ing in a con­stant state of dis­place­ment.”1

In the mid-2000s the Ital­ian philoso­pher Gior­gio Agam­ben traced the his­tory of the con­cept known as the “state of ex­cep­tion.” In the name of “se­cu­rity,” gov­ern­ments have for cen­turies used this po­lit­i­cal tool of power to sus­pend or di­min­ish the rights and pro­tec­tions of cer­tain peo­ple, in cer­tain places, usu­ally in re­sponse to per­ceived emer­gen­cies or crises. Agam­ben was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in our post–Septem­ber 11 era, in which the sus­pen­sion of tra­di­tional rights and pro­tec­tions has been pro­longed in­def­i­nitely for in­di­vid­u­als such as “en­emy com­bat­ants” in the War on Ter­ror, who are de­tained in ways that de­vi­ate en­tirely from the sup­posed in­alien­able rights es­tab­lished by the Geneva Con­ven­tions and US le­gal norms. Agam­ben de­scribes these peo­ple as be­ing at once bound by, and aban­doned to, law. In Agam­ben’s frame­work, the US– Mex­ico bor­der can be un­der­stood as a vast zone of ex­cep­tion, a place where

1“(Un)nat­u­ral bridges, (Un)safe spa­ces,” this bridge we call home: rad­i­cal vi­sions for trans­for­ma­tion, edited by Glo­ria E. An­zaldúa and Ana Louise Keat­ing (Routledge, 2002). laws and rights are ap­plied dif­fer­ently than they are in any other part of the na­tion. Since Septem­ber 11, pres­i­dents of both par­ties have de­ployed mil­i­tary troops there in re­sponse to ill-de­fined crises. Pres­i­dent Trump’s de­ploy­ment of the Na­tional Guard in April, for ex­am­ple, came at a time when bor­der cross­ings were at his­toric lows, and his Oc­to­ber de­ploy­ment of ac­tive-duty troops was elec­tion-sea­son the­ater de­signed to stoke the fren­zied me­dia cover­age sur­round­ing a sin­gle car­a­van of refugees. All the while the US bor­der has re­mained, by al­most any mea­sure, more se­cure than at any point in re­cent decades—though we might ask, se­cure for whom?

The bor­der­lands have slowly be­come a place where cit­i­zens are sub­ject to dis­tinct stan­dards for search and de­ten­tion, and where due process for nonci­t­i­zens is of­ten un­rec­og­niz­able by nor­mal Amer­i­can stan­dards. It is a place where mi­grants are reg­u­larly sen­tenced at mass hear­ings in which the fates of as many as seventy-five in­di­vid­u­als can be ad­ju­di­cated one af­ter an­other in a mat­ter of min­utes, af­ter which they are fun­neled into a bur­geon­ing im­mi­gra­tion in­car­cer­a­tion com­plex. It is a land­scape of­ten writ­ten off as a “waste­land” that is in­her­ently “hos­tile”— with­out recog­ni­tion that it has, in fact, been made to be hos­tile. Vi­o­lence does not grow or­gan­i­cally in our deserts or at our bor­ders. It has ar­rived there through pol­icy.

The deadly trans­for­ma­tion of our south­west­ern bor­der­lands be­gan in the 1990s, when Bor­der Pa­trol chiefs be­gan crack­ing down on mi­grant cross­ings in heav­ily traf­ficked ur­ban ar­eas like El Paso and San Diego. Walls were built, bud­gets bal­looned, and scores of new agents were hired to pa­trol bor­der towns. Ev­ery­where else, it was as­sumed, the in­hos­pitable desert would do the dirty work of de­ter­ring crossers away from the pub­lic eye.

Doris Meissner, the com­mis­sioner of the Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice from 1993 to 2000, told The Ari­zona Repub­lic that dur­ing the adop­tion of this strat­egy, which came to be known as “Pre­ven­tion Through De­ter­rence,” en­force­ment of­fi­cials and pol­icy mak­ers be­lieved “that ge­og­ra­phy would be an ally to us” and that bor­der cross­ings “would go down to a trickle once peo­ple re­al­ized what it’s like.” But mi­grants con­tin­ued to cross de­spite the new per­ils of the jour­ney, en­dan­ger­ing their lives in the desert in ways they had never done be­fore. Even as it be­came ob­vi­ous that large num­bers of peo­ple were risk­ing the cross­ing, re­sult­ing in an un­prece­dented num­ber of deaths in in­creas­ingly re­mote cor­ners of the desert, the gov­ern­ment did not change course. When asked to look back on the pol­icy of de­ter­rence in light of mi­grant deaths, Meissner told an in­ter­viewer, “The idea of aban­don­ing any kind of strength­ened bor­der en­force­ment be­cause of that con­se­quence was not a point of se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion.”

Meissner’s damn­ing ad­mis­sion—that the loss of hun­dreds of lives on Amer­ica’s doorstep each year was not enough to cause the gov­ern­ment to reeval­u­ate its pol­icy—re­veals the ex­tent to which the desert has been weaponized against mi­grants, and lays bare the fact that the hun­dreds who con­tinue to die there ev­ery year are los­ing their lives by de­sign. Deter­rence­based en­force­ment has steered the im­mi­gra­tion pol­i­tics of ev­ery ad­min­is­tra­tion since that of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, and has re­sulted in an of­fi­cial tally of more than six thou­sand mi­grant deaths along the south­ern bor­der be­tween 2000 and 2016. This fig­ure, it should be said, does not ac­count for the thou­sands more who have been re­ported as miss­ing and never found, not to men­tion those whose dis­ap­pear­ances are never re­ported in the first place.


De León, in his book The Land of Open Graves (2015), ar­gues that the gov­ern­ment views un­doc­u­mented mi­grants as peo­ple “whose lives have no po­lit­i­cal or so­cial value” and “whose deaths are of lit­tle con­se­quence.” This de­val­u­a­tion of mi­grant life is not just rhetor­i­cal: in 2018 in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter Bob Ortega re­vealed that neg­li­gent tal­ly­ing prac­tices by the Bor­der Pa­trol had failed to ac­count for more than five hun­dred mi­grant deaths re­ported by med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers, landown­ers, and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies

over the past six­teen years. In their ab­sence from of­fi­cial records, these lives were ef­fec­tively placed in limbo. Lack of cer­tainty about a loved one’s death not only pre­vents the proper rites of mourn­ing and burial from be­ing ob­served in the de­ceased’s home com­mu­nity, but also, as De León says, “al­lows the per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lence plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity.”

In de­fense of its en­force­ment prac­tices, the Bor­der Pa­trol of­ten touts search-and-res­cue op­er­a­tions as ev­i­dence of its hu­man­i­tar­ian pri­or­i­ties. I my­self once clung to this ar­gu­ment— it was even part of my mo­ti­va­tion for join­ing. As an agent, I signed up to re­ceive EMT train­ing and al­lowed my­self to be­lieve I was help­ing mi­grants by ad­min­is­ter­ing aid, even as I sup­pressed doubts about the job and ig­nored the ways my work helped push mi­grants to­ward death. When the Bor­der Pa­trol de­mands recog­ni­tion for saving lives, it’s as if fire­fight­ers were ask­ing to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief. To char­ac­ter­ize the Bor­der Pa­trol as a res­cue oper­a­tion is to gloss over a per­va­sive cul­ture of cal­lous­ness and de­struc­tion: while I in­deed worked along­side some deeply com­pas­sion­ate and honor­able agents, I also wit­nessed cowork­ers scat­ter mi­grant groups in re­mote ar­eas and de­stroy their wa­ter sup­plies, know­ing they’d never be held to ac­count. (These prac­tices have been ex­ten­sively doc­u­mented by hu­man­i­tar­ian groups and recorded in “The Dis­ap­peared,” a re­port pub­lished in 2016 by No More Deaths and La Coali­ción de Dere­chos Hu­manos.)

For the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, most of what hap­pens on the bor­der con­tin­ues to re­main out of sight and out of mind. But politi­cized im­mi­gra­tion rhetoric now reaches into ev­ery cor­ner of the na­tion, cast­ing mi­grants as “an­i­mals,” “gang mem­bers,” and “rapists” while link­ing bor­der se­cu­rity to vague no­tions of war­fare and de­fense against in­va­sion. The in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture of the Bor­der Pa­trol is, now more than ever, a prod­uct of such rhetoric and mil­i­taris­tic think­ing. Agents re­fer to mi­grants as “aliens,” “il­le­gals,” “bod­ies,” or “toncs” (a slur of du­bi­ous ori­gin, ei­ther an acro­nym stand­ing for “tem­po­rar­ily out of na­tive coun­try” or a ref­er­ence to the sound of a Maglite hit­ting a mi­grant’s skull). The agency’s prac­tices di­vert mi­grants—peo­ple the agents are made to un­der­stand as crim­i­nals in the same way sol­diers are made to un­der­stand those po­si­tioned against them as ene­mies—through some of the most deadly and dif­fi­cultto-tra­verse ter­rain in North Amer­ica. Thus are agents—al­ready equipped with drones, he­li­copters, in­frared cam­eras, radar ground sen­sors, Humvees, and ex­plo­sion-re­sis­tant ve­hi­cles—pro­vided with ev­ery con­ceiv­able ad­van­tage over those seek­ing en­try into the US.

The de­hu­man­iz­ing tac­tics and rhetoric of war have trans­formed the bor­der into a per­ma­nent zone of ex­cep­tion, where some of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple on earth face death and dis­ap­pear­ance on a daily ba­sis, where chil­dren have been torn from their par­ents to send the mes­sage You are not safe here, you are not wel­come. The true cri­sis at the bor­der is not one of surg­ing cross­ings or grow­ing crim­i­nal­ity, but of our own in­creas­ing dis­re­gard for hu­man life. To de­scribe what we are see­ing as a “cri­sis,” how­ever, is to im­ply that our cur­rent mo­ment is some­how more hor­ri­fy­ing than those that have re­cently set the stage for it—mo­ments that, had we al­lowed our­selves to see them and be hor­ri­fied by them, might have pre­vented our ar­rival here in the first place.

In an es­say ex­am­in­ing the om­nipres­ence of modern bor­ders and the im­mi­gra­tion cri­sis in the Mediter­ranean, Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Frances Stonor Saun­ders ar­gues that doc­u­ments such as pass­ports and visas are cen­tral com­po­nents to how our so­ci­ety val­ues and rec­og­nizes hu­man life.2 “Iden­tity is es­tab­lished by iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Saun­ders writes, “and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is es­tab­lished by doc­u­ment­ing and fix­ing the so­cially sig­nif­i­cant and cod­i­fi­able in­for­ma­tion that con­firms who you are.” Those who pos­sess such doc­u­men­ta­tion pos­sess a ver­i­fied self, “an iden­tity, formed through and confirmed by iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, that is at­tested to be ‘true.’” As res­i­dents of the “first world,” we are un­think­ingly priv­i­leged in our pos­ses­sion of a ver­i­fied self—it means, if noth­ing else, that our deaths will be recorded. In 2013, shortly af­ter his elec­tion to the pa­pacy, Pope Francis vis­ited Lampe­dusa, the small Ital­ian is­land in the Mediter­ranean com­monly known as North Africa’s “gate­way to Europe.” The is­land, only seventy miles from the shores of Tu­nisia, is a cen­tral des­ti­na­tion on the world’s dead­li­est mi­gra­tion route, where more than twenty thou­sand mi­grants have lost their lives at­tempt­ing to cross the sea. Dur­ing his visit the pon­tiff com­mem­o­rated these deaths with a homily in which he re­ferred to drowned mi­grants not as un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated “oth­ers,” but as fam­ily: “These broth­ers and sis­ters of ours were try­ing to es­cape dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions to find some seren­ity and peace; they were look­ing for a bet­ter place for them­selves and their fam­i­lies, but in­stead they found death.”

Stand­ing at an al­tar as­sem­bled from rem­nants of wooden refugee boats, Pope Francis looked out over the port of Lampe­dusa and asked his au­di­ence, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these broth­ers and sis­ters? Has any one of us wept?” In ask­ing his lis­ten­ers to con­sider who is re­spon­si­ble for this loss of life, he de­scribes “the glob­al­iza­tion of in­dif­fer­ence” through which our so­ci­eties have be­come numb to the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers—just as no one in­di­vid­ual can be held to ac­count for his or her com­pla­cency, the pope ar­gues, nei­ther can any­one be ab­solved of it.

Saun­ders calls at­ten­tion to the pope’s words in or­der to high­light the par­al­lel anonymi­ties that have come to de­fine im­mi­gra­tion crises across the globe: the priv­i­leged are as dif­fuse and un­ac­count­able as the down­trod­den are indis­tinct and un­named. To push back against the ab­strac­tion of mi­grants’ sto­ries, to re­ject the dis­missal and era­sure of their lives, we must be­gin by griev­ing their deaths, by speak­ing their names, by see­ing them, hear­ing them, and am­pli­fy­ing their voices. If our un­der­stand­ing of vi­o­lence and death along the bor­der can be­come some­thing vis­ceral, then we may be­gin to feel, deep within our­selves, no mat­ter how far we

2Frances Stonor Saun­ders, “Where on Earth Are You?,” London Review of Books, March 3, 2016. live from the bor­der, that what hap­pens there is pro­foundly un­nat­u­ral. By col­laps­ing the dis­tance that sep­a­rates us from the bor­der, we might push back against the idea of its in­her­ent vi­o­lence, against the un­ceas­ing nega­tion of its cul­ture and peo­ple, against its con­tin­ual trans­for­ma­tion into a hellscape de­signed to re­pel mi­grants.

In 1992 Jorge Du­rand, a so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gist and ge­og­ra­pher at Mex­ico’s Univer­sity of Guadala­jara, co­or­di­nated a se­ries of in-depth in­ter­views with Mex­i­can mi­grants who had ex­pe­ri­enced the hard jour­ney to the United States. One of these mi­grants, a man named Aure­lio, crossed the US bor­der dozens of times, only to be cap­tured and sent home by US author­i­ties on ev­ery sin­gle oc­ca­sion. “El Norte es como el mar,” he told his in­ter­viewer. “The north is like the sea.” He went on to ex­plain, “When I hear peo­ple speak [of the United States], I am quickly made to think of the ocean .... When one trav­els as an il­le­gal, he is dragged like the tail of an an­i­mal, like trash. I imag­ined how the sea washes trash onto the shore, and I told my­self, maybe here it’s just like I’m in the ocean, be­ing tossed out again and again.”

What we must un­der­stand about Aure­lio is that his sense of be­ing re­garded as trash is in di­rect re­la­tion to our in­dif­fer­ence, to the priv­i­leges that have been con­structed for us at the ex­pense and ex­clu­sion of him and oth­ers like him. At the same time, we must rec­og­nize that to feel em­pa­thy for him and oth­ers like him is not enough. “Com­pas­sion,” Su­san Son­tag fa­mously de­clared, “is an un­sta­ble emo­tion. It needs to be trans­lated into ac­tion, or it withers.” The same can be said of em­pa­thy—we can imag­ine Aure­lio’s pain, we can feel some­thing that per­haps ap­proaches it, and we can even, as Pope Francis sug­gests, grieve for him, weep for him— but in the end our feel­ings and our tears are use­less un­less they com­pel us to act in a way that might some­day im­prove his sit­u­a­tion. The hard truth is that the poli­cies and struc­tures that have taken Aure­lio’s body and re­jected it, over and over again, will re­main in place un­til we push firmly against them, de­mand­ing they be aban­doned or re­made. When the vi­o­lence of our in­sti­tu­tions is re­vealed, when their de­hu­man­iz­ing de­sign is laid bare, it can be too daunt­ing to imag­ine that we might change things. But what I have learned from giv­ing my­self over to a struc­ture of power, from liv­ing within its grim vi­sion and help­ing to harm the peo­ple and places from which I came, is that even the most ba­sic act of de­cency can serve as the spark that will lead one back to­ward hu­man­ity, and even the most ba­sic in­di­vid­ual in­ter­ac­tion has the power to up­end the idea of the “other.” Heed­ing even these small im­pulses can serve as a means of ex­tri­cat­ing our­selves from sys­tems of thought and pol­icy that per­pet­u­ate de­tach­ment, even in spite of all the mech­a­nisms that have been de­vised to make us be­lieve in in­di­vid­ual and na­tion­al­is­tic self­in­ter­est. As ob­vi­ous as it might seem, to truly and com­pletely re­ject a cul­ture of vi­o­lence, to ban­ish it from our minds, we must first fully refuse to par­tic­i­pate in it, and refuse to as­sist in its nor­mal­iza­tion. When we con­sider the bor­der, we might think of our home; when we con­sider those who cross it, we might think of those we hold dear.

—Tuc­son, Ari­zona, De­cem­ber 2018

Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants in Ti­juana, Mex­ico, where the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is forc­ing them to wait weeks or months to apply for asy­lum in the US, Novem­ber 2018

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