I was really intrigued by The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú. With the current political climate and the constant barrage of anti-immigration rhetoric I thought it would be interesting to read about immigration from an ex Border Patrol officer’s perspective. The first part of the narrative contains a personal history of Cantú’s time as a Border Patrol officer, some background on his family and Mexican heritage, but also important historical facts pertaining to the border, and how it was determined and physically marked on a map and on the ground. The second part talks about Cantú’s life post Border Patrol.
It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would want to become a Border Patrol official, or join ICE, especially a child of immigrants, even if they are third or fourth generation. As an immigrant with a significant other who is also an immigrant, it just seems like a really strange, more accurately, callous, choice. Cantú explains his reasons eloquently, and while the narrative shows us how why he chose this specific job, what he learnt, and why he left it behind after four years, I still honestly don’t understand why he chose that specific job. I do think that he was very brave to have written so truthfully about his choices and the truths that he learnt. Cantú tells us about the misgivings voiced by his mother when he left the academy, and proceeds to explain how the job affected him so much that he would grind his teeth in his sleep, have terrible nightmares, and then just stop sleeping altogether.
We’ve all seen and heard the true horror stories, some of us have personal experiences with them (hi!), but it really hits home when you read about them first hand from someone on the other side who was actually there and actively participated in them. I’ve found that a lot of Americans don’t seem to understand how dire the immigration system is in the US, and how hard it is to navigate it, and found that Cantú sheds a light on some of the areas that no one wants to look into. (A small light though as his light pertains directly to his experience on the border in the Texas and Arizona areas).
I’ve personally been subject to questioning by Arizona Border Patrol (might as well call it interrogation as that’s what it was), and it was pretty damn horrible. And my only mistake was traveling on the “wrong” passport (I have two nationalities but only one of them was associated with my temporary visa). I also have people very close to me who have dealt with them in the desert, and yeah, it takes a certain type of person to be able to do that job. Cantú is truthful when he describes the reality of how the officials treat migrants, and how it continues to haunt him. However, I do think you have to do a lot of reading between the lines to get to the real truths. Cantú is a good writer and I think that a lot of what he really wants to convey lies in his dreams, so read them closely.
I appreciated how the personal narrative was regularly interspersed with well researched information and anecdotes on the history of the border, on violence in Mexico and specifically Juarez, and on immigration in general in that area of the border. It helps put the personal narrative into a more general context, but one shouldn’t transfer this to the entire immigration process in the US. Remember: this is one person’s personal narrative.
In the second part of the book Cantú leaves his job to go back to school and work a less stressful job in a coffee shop. Cantú befriends José at work and the two become fast friends. Cantú knows that José is undocumented, José knows that Cantú was once in la Migra, but both appreciate each other as people. José had been living in the US for 30 years when his mother got sick and he left to go back to Mexico to care for her... Hoping to come back to his wife and kids as soon as he could. He unfortunately gets caught, and Cantú recounts the ins and outs of seeing everything from the other side, as friend of an immigrant rather than the person arresting the immigrant. Cantú’s shift of perspective is interesting… What do you do when your friend is the one on the other side of the bars? Do you regret ever being one of those people who put him there? Does Cantú help José’s family out of friendship or because he feels guilty? I don’t know – I don’t think he actually knows.
I really need to know how José is now as I feel like I’m personally invested in his story. Is Lupe ok? Are the kids ok??
But most importantly, my question for the author: while you were swimming back and forth across the river to the point of not knowing which country you were in anymore, did you ever even consider putting José in your car and just driving him back home to his family? That’s what a real friend would do. So as I am generally a positive person I am going to assume you did the right thing and used all of the resources at your fingertips to bring your friend back to where he belongs.
I purposely didn’t read anything about the controversy surrounding this book until I was able to get it from the library and read it. And yeah, I totally get it. I don’t personally feel like Cantú glorifies Border Patrol, but I do think there are areas that are totally omitted and glossed over. Handing a migrant a bottle of water or his undershirt doesn’t really erase the destruction of water bottles and food left out for migrants in the desert, or treating them like lesser humans.