What is a nation? How we answer the question extends to our borders, north, south, west, east and affects immigration and border policies.
If what holds a nation together is the idea that we are an extraordinary liberal democracy, ruled by the majority with rights for minorities, as Paul D. Miller claims in The Religion of American Greatness, then our nation can create a humane, just border policy. Indeed, if the nation’s authoritative history is our liberal democracy, then fair and firm immigration and border policies might be a much higher priority.
But if what makes the US exceptional is not our exceptional success in democracy, but instead a cultural identity, then our immigration policy will treat any outsider as a suspect until fully assimilated. It is based on the fear that “if our culture changes too much, we will lose who we are,” which Miller calls nationalism, a dangerous ideology that works with authoritarianism and breeds resistance. Taken to the extreme, Miller suggests that America must rely on the “cultivated habits of the eighteenth-century English gentleman” to survive.
But this column is not about Miller’s thoughts on nationality. Rather, it is related to Francisco Cantu’s “The Line Becomes a River,” a memoir about his years as a border patrol agent in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Cantu’s book is the next selection for the LWVMC’s Well-Read Citizens Brigade, with the next discussion taking place on December 7th.
Even though The Line Becomes a River came out more than four years ago, it’s still worth reading (or re-reading). Cantu’s book balances his personal experiences with a variety of outside voices. His report invites readers to wrestle with him, as we often say that our immigration and border policies need reform. His book provides first-hand accounts to help us ask the necessary questions about policing our borders.
The US Border Patrol is subject to the winds (or vagaries) of political change. Within the armed forces and the American public, the debate is implicitly framed as one of the tough law-and-order solutions to “overly compassionate” policies. (Or worse, the misnomer “open borders policy.”) In fact, as Cantu’s report shows, border guards themselves, along with the immigrants they arrest, face brutality and compassion.
Cantu went to the border police with an unusual “why.” The 23-year-old, who studied international relations in Washington, returned to Arizona and told his skeptical mother, “I’m tired of reading books about the border.” Part American, part Mexican, he marveled at the tensions between the two cultures and the ever-present threat of death along the border. “I’ll never understand it until I get close,” he told his mother, a retired park ranger.
“What does it mean to be good at it?” He wondered during training when he’ll realize he’s a good agent. He notes that “good at it” has different meanings. It “depends on who you’re with, depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to be.” He then writes that he encountered abandoned camps, frontier workers fled the agents. He and other agents cut up water bottles, threw backpacks and food on the ground, stomped on and urinated on them, and set the remains on fire. Being good at your job was a learned behavior and meant accepting things he knew were wrong and inhuman.
Cantu wrestles with the moral hurts the job inflicts, something he learned from Iraq veterans who testified that in the years after leaving the battlefield, it slowly kicked in “when a person has time to think about a traumatic experience.” to think”.
Cantu’s memoirs invite the reader into his mental struggles and also allow us to reflect and discuss. Like many of us, Cantu bears multiple ethnic origins, and his book implicitly asks us to remember America’s founding ideology: the values of a liberal democratic republic.
Behind the debate are implicit philosophies that are at odds with each other. A political solution seems to imply that American greatness comes from having a dominant cultural identity, something Anglo-Christian. Another asks what did America’s great experiment in democracy prove about maintaining an ethnically and intellectually diverse polity? As we citizens await a titanic deadlock Congress to reform border and immigration policies, what is imperative of us? After all, we live in a country where the people rule for the people. All people.
Everyone is invited to join the Well-Read Citizens Brigade discussion at Backstep Brewery on December 7 at 7:30 p.m.
The League of Women Voters, a multi-issue, nonpartisan organization, promotes informed and active participation in government, works to improve public understanding of important political issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the ARF, where practical work to uphold democracy leads to improvements in civil society. For more information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.