Guernica Magazine

Francisco Cantú and Lauren Markham: Border Patrol

The journalists discuss their debut books, writing about borderlands, and the people who cross over. The post Francisco Cantú and Lauren Markham: Border Patrol appeared first on Guernica.
Photo of Francisco Cantú by Keith Marroquin. Photo of Lauren Markham by Ben Gucciardi.

Earlier this year, in partnership with the New York Public Library, Guernica brought contributors Francisco Cantú, Lauren Markham, and John Washington together to discuss Cantú and Markham’s debut books, The Line Becomes a River and The Far Away Brothers, and the subject they both concern: the border between the United States and Mexico. Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent, grapples with his experience enforcing an immigration system he doesn’t agree with, and the often catastrophic results of those policies for migrants, and even fellow agents. Markham chronicles the journey of two impoverished brothers, both teens, from their home in El Salvador, across Mexico, the desert, and the border to Oakland, California.

In any consideration of the border, and of American immigration policy with respect to it, the desert itself—beautiful, wild, and deadly—looms large. It is the greatest hurdle, both for the migrants attempting to enter the United States and for the government that seeks to keep them out. For hundreds of migrants every year, that march into the desert is the last thing they’ll ever do. We have enlisted the borderlands themselves into our war; the desert has become an unwitting participant. But at what cost?

In this sprawling conversation at the New York Public Library, shortly after the publication of Cantú’s memoir and Markham’s expansive history of border walls in Harper’s Magazine, they discussed their own work, the inhumanity of the system they came to know so intimately, and what we can do to begin to affect change in a system that is, on the one hand, hopelessly bureaucratized, and on the other bizarrely spontaneous, amorphous, and personal.

John Washington: We have these two books, The Line Becomes a River, by Francisco Cantú, and The Far Away Brothers, by Lauren Markham that have a lot of interesting parallels between them. They’re both about immigration and neither is about researchers or authors delving into a story. Both authors are very much integral to the story. Lauren, you were teaching at the international high school when you met the Flores brothers—whom you profile very deftly in your book— and you helped them navigate the legal wilderness. You became a family friend and mentor to them. Paco, the first part of your book is about your time as a border patrol agent. You were arresting and chasing people. Then you flipped over to the other side, and you stayed involved, but in a different respect, when you were helping José—who became a close friend—along with his family navigate that same legal wilderness.

Lauren, this is from the foreword to your book:

“In a time when immigration is in the daily headlines yet is too often reduced to a matter of binary politics—keep them out or let them in, wall or no wall—this book seeks to offer a complex understanding of why immigrants leave their country, what struggles they endure to get here, and the challenges they face setting roots in a foreign land.”

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the Flores brothers, why they had to leave, how they got to Oakland, and how they crossed the border.

Many of us might remember that in 2014, one of the only things we were hearing about that summer was that “all of these kids are flooding across the border and we have nowhere to put and then for , and right before that media blitz I was at Oakland International High School, where I spend most of my time, and a colleague came into my office and said, “Hey, we really need to do something about all these kids who have court dates.”

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