The Best Book on Immigration You Will Read This Year Comes From a Former Border Patrol Agent

Francisco Cantú’s “The Line Becomes a River” is honest, gripping, and wonderfully written.

Beowulf Sheehan

At the beginning of his debut book, The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantú sits down with his mother over a Christmastime eggnog and brandy to explain why, after graduating from college with a bachelor’s in international relations, he decided to join the Border Patrol. He’d long been fascinated with the 1,954-mile line dividing the United States and Mexico, and he told her he was ready to move beyond a degree’s worth of policy reports and histories and to learn what was really happening at the border.

The only way to do that, he argued, was to be out in the Arizona desert, day in and day out. And better him—a compassionate Spanish speaker familiar with the Mexico many migrants were leaving—than the alternative.

His mom, herself the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, wasn’t buying it. “Fine, my mother said, fine,” Cantú writes. “But you must understand you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.”

Cantú’s book, out February 6, recalls his four years of working the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. It’s an evocative, empathetic look at the people on both sides of the American government’s nearly century-long effort to keep people from crossing from There to Here. Cantú takes his readers along as he learns how to cut sign (track migrants) and how best to approach corpses in the desert (a dab of Vicks VapoRub under the nose). We meet his sometimes gruff, sometimes Latino, usually quite ordinary Border Patrol colleagues—almost always men—as well as the desperate folks fleeing violence and poverty farther south, or hauling dope in the middle of nowhere.

When he joined the patrol, Cantú told me recently, he fancied himself as someone with “humanitarian instincts that would kind of allow me to be a humane force.” But as his mother reminds him, “You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison.”

Mom was right, Cantú says. His reckoning will long outlast the writing of this memoir and our current Trump-fueled border fixation. “Wherever I go to talk about the book, people say, ‘Oh, it’s so timely,’” he says. “And it’s true in a way, but the only truth is that our attention is there now. And that people have turned to direct their gaze to the thing that’s always been there—the immensity and insanity and injustice that’s always been there.”

Mother Jones: When you set out to be a Border Patrol agent right out of college, what were you expecting?

Francisco Cantú: I felt like I was entering that decision with a lot of intention, and with a lot of knowledge about all the ways that it would probably be very hard. But, looking back, I see ways that I was naïve. Part of my thinking was that whether or not I joined the Border Patrol, people are going to be filling this position. And at least I would be someone who speaks Spanish, who has lived in Mexico. A force for good in the agency.

MJ: So what was the experience like, in retrospect? What effect did it have on you?

FC: It’s funny. I came away with so many more questions than I entered in with. I guess the biggest takeaways are all these things that I feel are missing from the conversations that we have in this country about the border. When I was in college, like 2004 to 2008, it wasn’t much better. So I came away feeling that nothing is going to be solved until we start from a place that acknowledges the huge nuance and complexity of the border—and the insane human cost borne out by our current policies, which haven’t really changed across multiple presidencies.

What seems most urgent is that people are dying in the desert—we’re talking about hundreds of people each year, thousands and thousands in the last decade. Our current policy makes that happen. We have this policy of enforcement, pushing people to cross in the most rugged and inhospitable, dangerous range. I worked in a very remote station for the first two years of my career.

I see that now as a complete humanitarian crisis on American soil, and I don’t feel like we acknowledge those deaths and these people. We don’t name their bodies. We don’t memorialize them. We don’t mourn their death. That’s unacceptable. We have to understand those statistics as individual people.

MJ: What else do most people get wrong when they write about the border or the patrol? 

FC: The hard thing is that the Border Patrol is literally the largest law enforcement agency in the country—it’s bigger than the DEA, than the FBI. There’s something like 18,000 agents. And so you can find examples to bear out any theory. Yes, there are absolutely people who act terrible and do their job poorly and make reprehensible decisions that cost people dearly. I also met some of the most intelligent, kind, humane people that I’ve ever met. So it’s really hard to make generalities.

I can say that the culture of the agency is very insular. There’s this mentality that Border Patrol agents are always being maligned and are always being sort of represented as thugs. That just perpetuates this reluctance to talk to the media or to grant people ridealongs, because the Border Patrol sort of operates from this position of, “Well they’re always out to get us.” It’s a very cagey mentality, and I think that exists from the top to the bottom.

For many agents, this job takes a mental and spiritual toll that may not be recognized for years. There’s an agent represented in the book who I shared parts of the book with that he played a role in. He’s been out of the patrol for several years, and he wrote me that seeing himself on the page made him realize all the ways that he had symptoms of what was later diagnosed to be manic depression.

And he was like, “It makes me angry. It makes me realize now how this work exacerbated these destructive and depressive tendencies.” I think the only way to really deal with that work is to sort of bifurcate yourself into the person you are at work and the person that you feel like you are at home.

MJ: What makes a good Border Patrol agent? 

FC: Patience, first and foremost. It’s probably 80 to 90 percent boredom—or what many people would consider boredom. You’re often alone. You’re often in charge of patrolling a vast stretch of landscape.

Another thing that makes a good agent is getting out of your car. There’s a lot of complacency. There’s a lot of just showing up and punching the time card and doing the bare minimum. A good agent gets out of their truck and spends time on the ground.

I think it is absolutely imperative that agents learn to speak Spanish at a level that far exceeds the level that is being taught in the academy. There’s been a lowering of the Spanish standards that predates me coming into the Border Patrol. That is a huge shortcoming, because agents are basically taught to memorize scripts. They’re memorizing lines in a play in order to apprehend people. If all their knowledge comes from the academy, they’re unable to go off-script. If a situation doesn’t fit one of those scripts, they’re unable to capably deal with that situation—which is huge. If there’s one thing that kept me safe, and that kept me in touch with the job and the effects it has on people, it was my ability to speak Spanish. 

MJ: Do you think you were a good agent?

FC: Yeah. I was passionate about my work, and about the place where I was working. The desert is not some wasteland to me. It’s a living, breathing place, a place that is rich in history and culture.

There were definitely parts of the job that I enjoyed: Being outside, learning to understand and read the landscape. There’s those detective elements of the job, learning how to track people across the desert, and work the highways, and investigate smuggling cases. For a while, I was able to find pleasure in being good at those things. But I rarely ever truly felt like I was helping people, which after a certain point really began to grate on me and my subconscious.

I went into training to be an EMT after being in the field for like a year, which I thought would literally enable me to help save people’s lives. But even when I was legitimately helping people, it’s hard to feel purely good about that. At the end of the day I was taking them back to a cell, to be kicked back to the place that they were risking their life to flee.

MJ: How long did it take for that realization to set in, and how did it change the way you were feeling?

FC: It started with dreams, and that’s why dreams recur in the text. That was really the first sign I had that the job was taking a toll. I pushed those nightmares away. For years, I ignored them. But they kept persisting, and they became more and more violent and jarring until I could not ignore them anymore.

There’s this recurring dream I talk about in the book where I’m grinding my teeth or clenching my jaw. And that moment when I went in for a dental appointment, and the dentist is telling me I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep. I had never had a problem like that, and now all of a sudden I had gone through a layer of enamel. That was a physical manifestation of unconscious stress, an alarm system I couldn’t ignore.

It was almost never conscious. Until I left the Border Patrol, it was something I pushed away. And there was this moment a few months before I left where I literally broke down on the side of the road on my way home, driving home from a movie. I had to pull over, and I just started crying. That moment, on top of all these dreams, on top of grinding my teeth, is when I finally had to look at myself, and accept that something was wrong—that I wasn’t all right.

MJ: Do you think your book—and more stories from the border—could help change the way people interpret the debate on immigration?

FC: Absolutely. We need to hear a wide spectrum of stories. I don’t think there can be too much attention on the border right now. There’s good attention and bad attention, but to the extent that we are actually hearing the voices of people who spend their time and risk their lives—crossers and law enforcement agents and activists and community organizers—people on all sides of the issue, we need to listen. They know better. Any one of these people has better, more valuable insight than any of our politicians.