Francisco Cantú, who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for nearly four years, was not your typical agent. In The Line Becomes a River, his beautiful and devastating memoir of his time patrolling the border in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, he gives one migrant the actual shirt off his back before buying him a meal. Another migrant, abandoned by her group when she can’t keep up, can hardly walk when she’s apprehended by agents in the desert. Cantú, in an act rich with symbolism, tenderly washes her blistered feet.
Cantú is of Mexican heritage on his mother’s side; his maternal grandfather was brought across the border by his parents as a young boy. His mother never makes peace with her son’s job, and their searching conversations appear throughout the book. (The author eschews quotation marks when writing dialogue, giving these exchanges a dreamy, poetic feel.) He tells his mother that he’s taking the job because, after studying immigration and international relations in college, he yearns “to see the realities of the border” for himself. She wants him to find work that lets him “help people instead of pitting [him] against them.” His argument: “Good people will always be crossing the border, and whether I’m in the Border Patrol or not, agents will be out there arresting them. At least if I’m the one apprehending them, I can offer them some small comfort by speaking with them in their own language, by talking to them with knowledge of their home.”
He does exactly that, bringing a determined humanity to a brutal system. When he and his partner are searching the backpacks of two men they’ve found in the desert, they discover bags of grasshoppers and dried fish, which the men proudly tell the agents are typical Oaxacan cuisine. They urge the agents to sample the food, and while his partner is hesitant, Cantú immediately accepts, asking them about their village. “For a short time we stood together with the men, laughing and eating, listening to their stories from home.” At the station where the men will be processed for deportation, they notice Cantú throwing out their water bottle. One of the men whispers to Cantú that it’s not water, but homemade aged mezcal: “It’s at its best right now, he said, take it with you.”
Still, Cantú cannot escape being implicated in the border’s cruel realities. Migrants being pursued by Border Patrol often stash their heavy provisions, intending to come back for them, so that they can more easily evade the agents. “I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things,” Cantú writes, “but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.” The idea is to hasten the migrants’ realization that there’s no point in continuing, that they will not survive the journey. Indeed, as Cantú also sees firsthand, many do perish during the difficult desert crossing.
The final section of The Line Becomes a River takes place after Cantú leaves the Border Patrol because he’s plagued by anxiety and nightmares. He’s in Arizona, working at a coffee shop while pursuing a graduate degree in writing to help him “make sense of what [he’d] seen.” He befriends a maintenance man named Jose, and every morning for almost two years Jose shares his breakfast with Cantú and Cantú offers him coffee in return. Jose, in the U.S. illegally and married with three American-born sons, returns to Mexico to see his dying mother and is arrested trying to get back into the country. Cantú, seeking to help his friend, perhaps seeking some form of redemption too, attends Jose’s court hearings, takes his sons to visit him in jail (a trip too risky for their mother, who also lacks legal status) and, along with Jose’s boss and his pastor, retains an attorney to represent him. Despite their efforts, Jose is deported to Mexico. “I shouldn’t have left the U.S.,” Jose — whose story is not at all unusual — tells Cantú. “I shouldn’t have left my family, but I couldn’t live without going to see my mother.”
There are complex political and economic dimensions to our current immigration debate, but Cantú’s deeply humane book forces us to ponder questions of conscience. How can we sanction a system in which the decision to see a dying mother one last time is the wrong choice, one that can cost a man his family? When Jose asks Cantú whether he’d arrested many drug smugglers while working for Border Patrol, Cantú replies that he had but confesses that he mostly arrested “people looking for a better life.” One man being processed for deportation after his arrest asks Cantú if he can clean the jail cells or take out the trash while he waits: “I want to show you that I’m here to work,” he pleads. Is there any enhanced border enforcement that will stop the irrepressible human drive for a better life?
Cantú visits Jose in a border town in Mexico, where he’s preparing to attempt another crossing. Jose tells the author matter-of-factly that “there are many dangers, but for me it doesn’t matter. I have to cross, I have to arrive to the other side . . . So you see, there is nothing that can keep me from crossing.” He, and many others like him, will continue to risk their lives to enter the United States. It’s difficult to imagine a wall high enough to stop them from trying.