It sometimes seems that it is difficult for human beings, across geographies or generations or cultures, to care about one another—some archaic biological me-before-them mechanism, maybe. But there's life-sustaining worth in what we've built by way of culture, magic in communication, and more specifically, in story. In story, we are given an explicit moral framework that allows us to do that—to care about others. Story really might be humanity's greatest invention. In Francisco Cantú's highly anticipated memoir released on Feb. 6, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, the particular thrums on the same frequency as the universal as readers connect to distinct stories of migrants on the US-Mexico border.
Cantú had studied border politics in college and joined the Border Patrol immediately thereafter, hoping that he—as Mexican-American and a Spanish speaker—might bring some different sensibility to the service. In turn, he hoped the work might give him “an inside perspective, and that would allow me to unlock the border and see things that other people hadn't seen,” he said, over the phone from Dallas, where he was on the second day of his book tour. He thought he might later become an immigration lawyer or a policy maker in some capacity. “But when I left,” Cantú said, “I had more questions than I even came with.”
“You must understand,” Cantú's mother tells him in the first chapters of the book, “that you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.” Cantú grapples with the ramifications of that point through the entirety of the 250-page account. In fact, he struggled with it long after he had left the Border Patrol. Some leftist activists have reacted against Cantú's book suggesting that it normalizes inexcusable cruelty; others read a deeply personal inquiry into his own complicity in that system, and a reproach of the powers-that-be. The reception for the book has been fraught—some have accused Cantú of profiting from the stories of people whose lives he had a hand in fracturing. Other readers find a necessary amplification of these stories that too often get lost in the discussion of immigration. Cantú came to his writing practice haunted by persistent dreams spurned by his experiences, and so he returned to journal entries he had made during his four years of work in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
“The things I remembered the most after leaving the Border Patrol weren't car chases or making big drug busts,” he said, “what I carried with me years after I quit were these individual encounters with specific crossers.” In The Line Becomes a River, Cantú retells, with striking lyricism, these stories. He recounted to me one encounter with a pregnant woman and her husband who had gotten lost and were left by their group as they passed through the Sonoran desert. It turned out that the woman had spent most of her life in the US; she spoke perfect English, she was a school teacher. The couple asked Cantú to do them a favor—just drop them off at the border, spare them the processing and deportation. “At the time,” Cantú described, “there was no conflict at all for me. The answer was no, I'm just doing my job.” He asked them their names, feeling that “I wanted these people to be safe, I wanted to remember who they were.” A couple of hours later, he had already forgotten. “Looking back on it, that's sort of part of the numbness and normalization that happens in order to do that job. You forget who these people are. That alarmed me—the way all these individuals blended together. Writing this down and taking those stories out of my journal was a way of reclaiming those experiences and giving a name and a face to so many of these people that I had encountered,” he said.
For Cantú, the individual lives intersecting with the border and so profoundly impacted by its policies are central to any understanding of the place, though those particular stories are often subsumed by statistics, lost in rhetoric. “To me now it seems like the most important thing moving forward having questions about immigration reform or border policy reform is to acknowledge first and foremost how huge and complex and nuanced this issue and this place is. To address the actual human costs of the policy.”
Moreover, people won't stop crossing, no matter what kind of architecture one side raises to keep the other out. Cantú has seen smugglers use hydraulic lifts to raise panels so cars could drive underneath and holes burnt by welders into the standing wall so people can go through. “To me,” Cantú said, “I don't see an argument for a bigger, stronger wall; I see an argument that no matter what kind of obstacle we put there, no matter what kind of barrier, it’s going to be subverted. People are going to find a way up, over, under or around it.” Which makes the current policy of enforcement through deterrence—largely by heavily enforcing urban areas under the assumption that crossing the unforgiving deserts that provide the only other avenue to the United States wouldn't be attempted—illogical, even cruel. And nearly 6,000 migrants have died crossing since 2000. “I've seen people with silver dollar-sized blisters on their feet, or who were dehydrated to the point that they were near death. I've encountered dead bodies. For me, it's an absolute humanitarian crisis that is happening on our soil because of these policies,” Cantú said. “And we don't talk about them, we don't mourn their deaths, we don't name their bodies, they often remain unidentified. To me, that's unacceptable, and it has to change.”
This is part of the work that Cantú's book does—through story connecting readers to experiences they may not have or understand or often hear. “I hope that the book … brings home the emotional weight and the value and dignity of each of these lives, so we don't think about migrants as an undifferentiated mass, so that we don't think of them as statistics. So we think about each number as being representative of a human life, an individual. I hope … that it makes an impact emotionally on the reader so they bring that with them when they look at the border,” he said.
By assimilating into an unjust system, Cantú lost some of his own humanity. The past can’t be repaired, but this book is much more Cantú’s own contrition as an account of life as a Border Patrol agent. The Line Becomes a River is available for purchase now at your favorite local, independent bookstore, and Cantú visits Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW) this Friday, Feb. 23 at 6pm for a reading and discussion of the work.