Sarah Towle 80F’s “Crossing the Line” Examines Forced Displacement and Human Migration

The book, published on June 18, has been lauded by fellow Hampshire alum and award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns 71F, who wrote, “We all deserve a narrative with clarity, and Towle’s has delivered. Spectacular!”

We recently spoke with the author about Crossing the Line, her academic journey, and how Hampshire “taught her how to learn.”
Tell us about the book.

Crossing the Line: Finding America in the Borderlands explores the root causes of forced displacement and human migration through the experiences of individuals most directly impacted. Among them are people seeking safety as well as the humanitarians offering them welcome, who in these deeply troubled times are becoming increasingly criminalized.
It’s a global story that sits at the intersection of climate breakdown, the failure of neoliberalism, and what the activist-scholar Kehinde Andrews calls “the psychosis of Whiteness” — some of the most pressing issues of our current era. So, whereas I end the narrative on a mass deportation flight, I start with my lens trained on the United States–Mexico border, inside an ad hoc tent city perched atop a Rio Grande Valley floodplain on the threshold of the world’s “richest and most powerful” nation.
At that time, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated that an unprecedented 114 million people were forcibly displaced and stateless, living outside their country of origin — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic upended economies worldwide. In real terms, that means that one in every one hundred people on the planet today is uprooted from their birthplace by violence, persecution, climate-related disasters, war, or crushing poverty. Eighty percent are from the Global South. One-third are estimated to be children.
The world’s wealthiest nations have opened global borders to the free and unfettered movement of money and goods, but they’ve simultaneously sealed borders to the movement of people. Rather than asking Why are so many people on the run? and taking responsibility for the forced displacement their policy decisions have caused, they remain committed to a singular imperative: How do we stop them?

“Drawing on research skills I began to develop at Hampshire and harnessing my craft as a children’s-book author and my training as an educator, I resolved to bring humanity back to today’s divisive immigration debate...”

The result is a border-industrial complex that encircles the globe like a second equator. Its walls and surveillance systems, its visa requirements and passport controls, its dictates about who is welcomed and who isn’t separate rich from poor, white from Black and Brown, and relative safety from danger and violence in a global apartheid that cleaves north and south asunder.
When the pandemic forced me back home and halted my other projects, I dove into the issue as if propelled by a Division III deadline. I returned to the border until I’d crossed the line from Brownsville, Texas, to Tijuana, Mexico. All along the way I interviewed people coming into the United States.
Drawing on research skills I began to develop at Hampshire and harnessing my craft as a children’s-book author and my training as an educator, I resolved to bring humanity back to today’s divisive immigration debate through the transformative power of storytelling.
The work is a tapestry of original reporting, oral history-telling, and memoir of my own awakening to the impunity of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It is written for the general public, who I believe would be outraged, too, if they only knew. It’s my attempt to snatch the mic away from the pundits and politicians and bring the conversation out of the academy, to illuminate for voters how the chief U.S. border management strategy, “prevention through deterrence," undermines the promise of our democracy.
How did your time at Hampshire influence your work?

I didn’t understand until I was a junior in high school in conversation with the dean of students at Amherst College that I was a “self-directed learner.” Until then, I never saw my curiosity as a gift. To that point, I tended to frustrate teachers and my parents with my propensity to push past typically defined academic limits to explore the connections between things. And though I largely did well in school, I never tested well. Nonetheless, I was determined to follow in my father’s footsteps and go to Amherst College.

“Hampshire prepared me for life beyond school because it equipped me with the greatest gift of all — it taught me how to learn.” 

So, I traveled to Amherst in 1978 to convince the dean to overlook my poor SAT performance and give me a chance. He said he would consider it, but he predicted I would feel confined by the school’s traditional structure. He suggested I consider Hampshire, which I did. Hampshire didn’t require SAT or ACT scores, happy days! And I got in.

At Hampshire, I spread myself thin in the pursuit of academic discovery. But it prepared me for life beyond school because it equipped me with the greatest gift of all — it taught me how to learn.

My experience eventually drove me to a career in education. And Crossing the Line, in many ways, is the culmination of a circuitous path that began at Hampshire College.

Did you attend graduate school?

I attended Teachers College, Columbia University. My professors didn’t know quite what to make of me as I entered, ostensibly, to study applied linguistics and bilingual education. But when I took a job as the assistant to Morton Deutsch, one of the founding fathers of the field of conflict resolution, I found my calling as a teacher of what is now called social and emotional learning. That’s also when I began writing for children and youth — and when I discovered a new way to teach!

What would you say to students contemplating Hampshire?

It was an incredible gift to spend four years in such a dynamic place, surrounded by thought leaders, natural beauty, and access to cutting-edge cultural input and opportunities. I’m afraid that I spent too much time worrying about what was next to enjoy it to the fullest. So my advice to students both current and prospective is to lean into it, and at the same time be mindful of your privilege. Understand how lucky you are and be willing to put that good fortune to positive use. Four years go by so quickly. Suck the juicy goodness out of each minute. The future will take care of itself. 

Learn more about Crossing the Line.