What is a Nation? How we answer the question ripples all the way to our borders, north, south, west, east and affects immigration and border policies.
If what binds a nation together is the idea that we are an exceptional liberal democracy, ruled by a majority with rights for minorities, as Paul D. Miller argues in “The Religion of American Greatness,” then our nation can create a humane, just border policy . If the nation’s binding narrative is our liberal democracy, then fair and strict immigration and border policies could be a much higher priority.
But if what makes the US exceptional is not our extraordinary success in democracy, but instead a cultural identity, then our immigration policy will treat any outsider as suspicious until they are fully assimilated. It is based on the fear that “we will lose who we are if our culture changes too much,” which Miller says is nationalism, a dangerous ideology that works on authoritarianism and generates resistance. Taken to the logical extreme, suggests that America should depend on the “cultivated ways of the 18th-century English gentleman” for survival, Miller writes.
But this column is not about Miller’s thoughts on nationhood. Rather, it is related to Francisco Cantu’s “The Line Becomes a River,” a memoir about his years as a border guard in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Cantu’s book is the next selection for the LWVMC’s Well-Read Citizens Brigade, whose next discussion is December 7.
Even though ‘The Line Becomes a River’ came out more than four years ago, it’s worth reading (or rereading). Cantu’s book balances his personal experiences with a multitude of outside voices. His account invites readers to grapple with him, as we often say our immigration and border policies need reform. His book provides first-hand accounts to help us ask the necessary questions about how to guard our borders.
The US Border Patrol is subject to the winds (or whims) of political change. Within the armed forces and the American public, the debate is implicitly presented as one of hard law-and-order solutions versus “overly compassionate” policies. (Or worse, the misnomer of “open-border” policy.) Indeed, as Cantu’s account reveals, the border agents themselves, along with the immigrants they detain, are subject to swings of cruelty and compassion.
Cantu went to Border Patrol with an unusual “why.” A 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 tension between the two cultures and the ever-present threat of death along the border. “I won’t understand until I get close to it,” he told his mother, a retired park ranger.
“What does it mean to be good at this?” He wondered during training when he realizes he is a good cop. He notes that what is “good at this” has several meanings. It “depends on who you’re with, depends on what kind of cop you are, what kind of cop you want to be.” He then writes that he ended up in abandoned camps, border crossings that had fled from the agents. He and other officers smashed water bottles, threw backpacks and food on the ground, trampled and urinated on them, then set fire to the remains. Being good at his job was learned behavior and meant accepting things he knew were wrong and inhumane.
Cantu struggles with the moral damage the job causes, something he learned from Iraq veterans who testified that it started slowly in the years after leaving the battlefield, “when one has time to reflect on a traumatic experience.”
Cantu’s memoir invites readers into his mental wrangling and also allows us to reflect and discuss. Like many of us, Cantu has multiple ethnicities in him, and his book implicitly asks us to remember America’s founding ideology: the values of the liberal democratic republic.
Behind the debate, implicit philosophies go at odds with each other. One policy solution seems to imply that American greatness is based on having one dominant cultural identity, something Anglo-Christian. Another asks what the great American experiment of democracy has proven about sustaining an ethnically and intellectually diverse polity? While we citizens wait for a giant deadlocked Congress to reform border and immigration policies, what should we do? After all, we live in a country where government is by the people, for the people. All the people.
Everyone is welcome to join the Well-Read Citizens Brigade discussion at 7:30pm at Backstep Brewery on December 7.
A nonpartisan, multi-issue organization, the League of Women Voters encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of important policy issues, and influences government policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV, where hands-on work to protect democracy leads to civic betterment. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.