Best-selling author Cantú advises Basalt crowd to sustain outrage over immigration policy | PostIndependent.com

Best-selling author Cantú advises Basalt crowd to sustain outrage over immigration policy

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

"The Line Becomes a River" author Francisco Cantú is the June writer-in-residence at Aspen Words.

Author Francisco Cantú got a reprieve in Basalt Tuesday from the controversy generated by his book, "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border."

The New York Times bestseller and critically acclaimed work has also made Cantú a target for immigration activists who have criticized him for participating in the inhuman and life-threatening policies of the U.S. Border Patrol that he documented.

If Roaring Fork Valley's Latinos were aware of the book and Cantú's presentation, they didn't show up Tuesday night. The standing-room-only crowd at The Temporary was overwhelming white, older and eager to learn what they can do to protest the U.S. immigration policies that Cantú spotlighted.

Cantú said the U.S. adopted a policy of prevention of illegal entry through deterrence after too many people crossed the border at major cities in the 1980s and 1990s.

"They pushed it out into the desert where it couldn't be seen," he said. "There's no water in the desert. We're talking about some of the most rugged, remote terrain in this country."

The U.S. essentially "outsourced" the enforcement work to the hot, potentially deadly terrain. Cantú witnessed the policy in action when he worked as a border patrol agent from 2008 to 2012 in his home state of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Food and water caches strategically placed for people illegally crossing the desert would be destroyed, leaving them without water in life-threatening situations. Agents would scatter the clothes and belongings of people who fled to elude capture.

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"That's why since the late '90s, there's been a precipitous rise in the number of people who die crossing the desert," he said.

Since year 2000 there have been 7,000-some documented cases of deaths of death along the border, according to Cantú.

"The first thing that has to change is this policy of enforcement through deterrence, but that's a huge uphill battle because there's all these other shiny objects that tug at our heart more and they're more visible," he said.

As long as the people trying to cross the border are depicted as criminals whose lives are disposable and the border as a wasteland, then there's no motivation to dig deeper at the issue. It remains in the shadows.

Cantú advised people to hone in the issue and stick to it — not just during the two-year election cycle but all the time.

"I think sustaining outrage in this political climate is really difficult because there's so many things to be outraged by," he said.

But the "system" depends on people constantly getting outraged by something new and moving on to the next cause before making headway on the initial issue, he said.

"I think sustaining our outrage about this issue is really important," Cantú said.

He also urged people to engage personally in smaller steps, such as volunteering for organization such as English In Action, which helps migrants learn English, bailing somebody out of jail or helping a person who entered the country illegally find an immigration attorney.

Letting undocumented people know that somebody is concerned about their plight and willing to help can be huge, he said, because of the psychological pressure they are facing in the current political climate.

"It's like the border comes and grabs you, right, and takes you back," Cantú said.

He said he is willing to deal with the criticism he has faced for serving as a border patrol agent if "The Lines Becomes a River" provides an "entry point" for a deeper conversation on immigration policy.

Cantú is the writer-in-residence for June for the nonprofit Aspen Words. His reading, presentation and book signing was jointly hosted by Aspen Words and The Temporary.

scondon@aspentimes.com