Back against the wall

Author writes about experiences as U.S. Border Patrol agent

Posted 5/22/19

There might be no social topic today more relevant, thought-provoking or disheartening than …

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Back against the wall

Author writes about experiences as U.S. Border Patrol agent



Dispatches from the Border

by Francisco Cantú

247 pp. Riverhead Books. $26

There might be no social topic today more relevant, thought-provoking or disheartening than immigration control on our southern border. This past fall, Trump administration's immigration strategy that separated families at the border caused extensive outcry. Most recently, a surge of Central American asylum seekers flooded short-term detention facilities along the southwest border. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to seek funding for his controversial border wall.

Francisco Cantú's debut memoir, "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border," is a timely and compassionate look at this daunting political situation.

In 2008, after graduating from its academy (CBP Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico), Cantú joins the United States Border Patrol. His mother, a retired National Park Service ranger of Mexican descent, is not happy about it, referring to the border patrol as a "paramilitary police force." But Cantú doesn't agree with her perspective. He addresses his mother in the book, "The people who look at you funny when you tell them I'm in the Border Patrol probably imagine an agency full of white racists out to kill and deport Mexicans. But that's not me, and those aren't the kind of people I see at the academy. Nearly half my classmates are Hispanic, some of them grew up speaking Spanish, some grew up right on the border ... These people aren't joining the Border Patrol to oppress others. They're joining because it represents an opportunity for service, stability, financial security."

What his mother really wants to know is why does Cantú want to join the Border Patrol? "I spent four years in college [American University] studying international relations and learning about the border through policy and history," he writes. "You can tell whoever asks that I'm tired of studying. I'm tired of reading about the border in books. I want to be on the ground, out in the field. I want the realities of the border day in and day out … I don't see any better way to truly understand the place."

For the next four years, Cantú has many opportunities to "truly understand" what happens along the border. In Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, Cantú witnesses all kinds of atrocities. Many people suffer and die trying to cross the desert in the summer. Cantú and his colleagues find migrants at all stages of misfortune, dehydrated and sick, deserted by the coyotes (men paid to ferry them to freedom). Many of the migrants are grateful to be discovered by Border Patrol, who provide them food and water before sending them off to be processed. They are all grateful for Cantú's kindness.

For a while Cantú takes a desk job and then finally he decides to leave the Border Patrol. "I had reached a point at which I could barely sleep, a point at which my mind had become so filled with violence that I could barely perceive beauty in the landscape around me." Cantú leaves the Border Patrol with more questions than answers.

Throughout the book, Cantú is haunted by dreams of a wolf. "I dreamed of a cave littered with body parts, a landscape devoid of color and light. I saw a wolf circling in the darkness and felt its paws heavy on my chest, its breath hot on my face." He is aware of the significance of the wolf and the parallel between the wolf, an animal no longer able to roam free across the borderlands, and the migrants he hunts. Cantú is the hunter but in his dreams, he becomes the hunted.

Cantú's language is minimalist. He rarely gives commentaries about his involvements, instead allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. His writing does not try to preach a message, and he doesn't need to; his encounters speak for themselves. Cantú also quotes from reporters, historians, neuroscientists, psychoanalysts and authors throughout the book on various subjects pertaining to his experiences, serving to ground Cantú's story and give it context.

"The Line Becomes a River" does not end when Cantú's job with the Border Patrol ends. A few years later, he befriends an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca named José who has lived in the States for 30 years and is married with three sons. When José crosses the border to see his dying mother one last time, he is detained while trying to return. Cantú steps in and attempts to help him.

For the first time, Cantú sees another side to the immigration process.

"It dawned on me that in my countless encounters with migrants at the hard end of their road through the desert, there was always the closeness of the failed journey, the fading but still-hot spark from the last flame of crossing. But here in the stale and swirling air of the courthouse, it was clear that something vital had gone missing in the days since apprehension, some final essence of the spirit had been stamped out or lost in the slow crush of confinement."

As Cantú helps José, he wonders if he is subconsciously seeking redemption, if he is trying to make reparations for his time in the Border Patrol. But he's not sure what that would look like. Perhaps his true redemption is in writing this book. "The Line Becomes a River" asks readers to see migrants and asylum seekers not as a faceless group, but as one man or one woman trying to help his or her family and make a better life for themselves.

Cantú will read from his book Friday (May 24), 7 p.m., at Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street. Tickets are $20; $16 for SOMOS, Taos United, Taos Immigrant Allies and Harwood Alliance members.

There will also be a panel discussion with Cantú, Taos United and Taos Immigrant Allies on Saturday (May 25), 10 a.m. until noon at the Taos Civic Plaza and Convention Center's El Taoseño Room, 120 Civic Plaza Drive. Admission is free. Donation for immigrant families is appreciated.


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