In 2006, a British psychologist published a now popular study showing that there exists a tribe of people in Namibia who have difficulty seeing the color blue. This was, in part at least, due to the word for blue in their native language: there wasn’t one.
Most vacuums in political conversation seem to work in a similar way; there is often a perspective waiting to be addressed. Frequently the vacuum exists because that perspective doesn’t actually have a voice yet.
In the ever shifting, frustratingly polarized landscape that makes up the American conversation about immigration reform, there has been an overlooked and unaddressed perspective. The perspective being alluded to here is that of the United States Border Patrol, twenty thousand or so men and women who make up the active hand of abstract immigration policy.
That perspective is delivered to powerful effect in the new book The Line Becomes a River, written by Franciso Cantú.
Through the recording of his experience as a four-year veteran of “la migra”, Cantú breathes new life into a debate, which despite remaining active in the highest chambers of our government, often times feels both figuratively and literally stale.
In 247 pages and five parts, including a prologue and epilogue, Cantú describes with Didion-esque clarity his post-undergrad declaration to enlist in the Patrol, along with experiences both as a field agent and intelligence officer, and ultimately his decision to give up his badge and gun. Anxiety induced dreams had during his time with the agency, recorded in rich and poetic detail, are fraught with symbolism and metaphor for how much tension a person can feel while wrestling with questions of personal morality.
The book is a huge undertaking, and Cantú’s questions are many. Chief amongst them though is how might a person maintain their soul when pressed into service for an oppressive and indifferent system?
This question feels particularity poignant in the third portion of the book when a friend of the author finds himself swept up into that system. José is a father of three, a husband, an active member of his local community, and a migrant who has been living illegally in the United States for 30 years.
By taking on responsibility for helping José’s family navigate the confusing and frustrating world of immigration court proceedings, the author is forced to look upon the reality of the system into which he fed those he detained. Despite years working for the system, Cantú finds himself powerless to help someone whom he considers a brother, while José is bounced around in the bureaucracy of court appointed attorneys and detention centers.
Where Cantú excels is in the personal. This is true in his recounting of conversations with fellow field agents of the patrol, as well as in a bond formed with the officer in charge of his intelligence unit. There are soul-searching talks with his mother, herself a veteran of the parks service. She has more than her fair share of reservations about her only son becoming involved in a system that she views as not only dehumanizing, but dangerous, and understandably so. What chance does a generous, observant, warm-hearted soul have in the gears of crushing government institution?
I knew Cantú somewhat in High School, though as an acquaintance only. His keen intelligence was noticeable even then, but it is charisma that he has in spades. It is hard to imagine anyone not taking a liking to him, even hardened veterans of the border patrol.
At the core of that charisma seems to be an almost supernatural capacity for empathy—while listening to the confessions of a fellow agent about a shooting he committed while on duty as a police officer, or washing and bandaging the feet of a woman brought in after “quitting” her crossing, he is able to cut through the white noise of personal ego in order to see people, in all of their brokenness and beauty, more clearly than most. In writing River he affords the reader an opportunity to peek over his shoulder while doing so.
Where the book carries some slack is in the meticulously researched, if somewhat dry, attempts to provide context by pulling from various histories of the Mexican revolution and its lingering effects on the population closest to the border. This slack can be forgiven. The author clearly believes in the importance of knowing where we came from in order to understand where we have arrived.
An engrossing section details the history of the two original surveys of the modern day Mexican American border. The first resulted in the erection of forty-three boundary markers spread across the 675 miles of terrain. A follow up survey in 1892 made up of engineers, astronomers, blacksmiths, teamsters, draftsmen, and others, and boasting a military detail of twenty cavalrymen and thirty infantrymen, expanded the boundary markers to include over two hundred steel monuments.
There are also portions of the book dedicated to scholarly articles on subjects ranging from the causes and nature of violence in societies to the emergence of mass femicide in Ciudad Juarez. Though I occasionally found my mind drifting during these detours from Cantú’s direct forms of storytelling, there is no doubt that their presence here will satisfy those looking for a journalistic experience. They serve to elevate the book from the realm of straight memoir, in the tradition of Jarhead, to something more.
In part three of his book the author addresses the question of redemption. Specifically, what would redemption look like for someone who has sent so many hopeful seekers back across the line (which is a river), assuredly tearing apart families and lives in the process?
Though posed in the personal, Cantú’s musing does beg the question, might we all not in someway be guilty? If nothing else, guilty of gross ignorance? And if that is the case, what does redemption look like for an entire nation?
A scene near the end has a group of forty unwashed, exhausted people chained to one another and arrayed in front of an immigration judge. One of them is José.
They listen intently to a translator through headsets as they are each asked how they plead to the charge of illegal entry into our sovereign nation. Each of the forty is forced to answer for his or her actions in seeking out illegal passage to a country that for generations of immigrants has represented the opportunity to build a new, better life.
One by one, they answer “Culpable, señor.”