Insights and Impact

Toeing the Line

US Border Patrol truck tears across the Sonoran Desert


Photo­graphy by
Gary Knight

The 1,954-mile US-Mexico border begins at the Pacific Ocean. It cuts through bustling—but not necessarily thriving—urban areas and huge swaths of uninhabited, inhospitable desert before intersecting with the Rio Grande and tracing the river southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. Each year 350 million people cross it legally, while countless others make the dangerous journey with nothing but hopes and dreams. 

Francisco Cantú’s roots snake across both sides of the line. When his grandfather was a boy, his family fled Monterrey, Mexico, for San Diego, California, to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Cantú, SIS/BA ’08, grew up in Arizona and has always felt most at home in the desert among stately saguaros and prickly pears, sunbaked dirt under his feet and cloudless skies overhead.

At AU, Cantú’s interest in border history and policy blossomed like the yellow buds on a palo verde. But he realized he could learn only so much from books and journals. “I knew it might be ugly and dangerous, but I needed to be on the ground, in the field,” says Cantú, now 32. That dusty, desolate place—the source of so much heated debate and heartbreak—was calling him home. 

Six months after collecting his international relations degree, Cantú joined the US Border Patrol. He chronicles his four years with the agency in The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, which was released to critical acclaim in February.

Cantú—a former Fulbright Fellow and recipient of a Pushcart Prize and 2017 Whiting Award—chatted with American about his book, the border, and whether or not he found answers to the questions that drew him to the line.

Q. What sparked your curiosity in issues around the US-Mexico border?

A lot of very ambitious students come to AU. They want to intern for a congressperson or work for the federal government. Because I grew up in a small town in Arizona, that level of ambition and opportunity was a little jarring to me. My reaction was to look back toward where I came from—and back toward a subject that I already knew a little about. 

I’m from the Southwest. I lived close enough to the border that it wasn’t an abstract concept to me. By the end of my freshman year, I decided I wanted to study abroad in Mexico and focus on US-Mexico relations, immigration, and border issues. 

Q. When did you decide to apply to the Border Patrol? You write a lot about your mother’s reservations—did you have any of your own?

During the fall of my senior year, I went to the AU Job Fair and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) booth caught my eye. They had lots of pictures of Border Patrol agents on horses and ATVs. At the time, I kind of blew it off, because I was more interested in community activism. But I knew that I wanted to go back to Arizona and work on the border—I was hyper-obsessed with being out in the desert. The more I thought about it, the more Border Patrol started to make sense. It’s the only [agency] on the border, day in and day out.

I had a lot of reservations. I didn’t agree with many of our border policies and knew I would be part of an institution enforcing them. But like so many people fresh out of college, I thought I could be a force for good. I thought I would do this for four or five years, then go on to law school.

Q. Most of your research at AU focused on the border. When you got into the field, 
did you discover a gulf between theory and practice?

When you’re in college, you really get a big-picture view of the world. You’re looking at the forest, not the trees. But when I joined Border Patrol, it wasn’t my job to survey the forest, to take a broad view of immigration policy: it was my job to deal with the tree directly in front of me.

All of your training is designed to break down who you are as an individual and rebuild you as a law enforcement agent. I came to the Border Patrol with lots of questions, and it’s alarming how quickly I pushed them aside, almost out of necessity. Eventually I couldn’t separate myself from the institution and the broader systems of which I was a part. 

Q. You write a lot about the disturbing dreams you started having after you joined the agency. What did you make of them at the time?

In hindsight, it’s plain to see that I was grappling with the violent nature of my work, which was [incongruous] with how I saw myself as a person. Law enforcement isn’t the kind of work that encourages reflection or emotional vulnerability, so I pushed the dreams away for years, until they became too jarring and violent to ignore. It was as if my subconscious was shaking me. 

Q. Let’s talk about the stuff of the job: how did you spend your four years with the agency?

I spent most of my time in Arizona and just under a year in Texas. My office was the great outdoors—I loved that. There were occasional car chases and drug busts, but 80 percent of my time was spent alone, either in the truck or on foot, tracking and patrolling a huge area of remote desert. I also had encounters with people who crossed the border—the majority of whom were fleeing violence, looking for jobs, or trying to reunite with family in the US.

Q. As a Mexican American did you ever feel conflicted about the work you were doing?

I was very naïve at first. I thought I could help people—that I could make the experience less traumatic because I speak Spanish and I’ve travelled around Mexico. In my mind, that was enough to offset the power I was wielding over people.

Just under half of the Border Patrol is Latino. There are lots of first- and second-generation Mexican Americans with their own immigration stories, but the job doesn’t encourage you to talk about that.

Q. Do you regret your time with Border Patrol? 

In general, I try not to be consumed with regret. I think of something that my mother told me: what’s important is finding space to hold what we’ve done in the past and use it to move forward. That’s what this book was for me—a way to come to terms with my involvement with an institution whose policies I don’t agree with.

I could’ve felt bad about my experiences and just moved on, or blocked them out altogether, which is what I was in the habit of doing. I wouldn’t process what happened at work. Sitting down to write about it was a way of reclaiming part of my experience. It was a way for that time not to have been spent in vain. 

Q. When did you start writing about your experiences?

I didn’t join Border Patrol thinking I would write this book. When I began to think about leaving the agency, it felt like an act of surrender because I didn’t have answers to all of my questions—I just had more questions. The border seemed more vast and complex than it ever had before.

Writing began as a way to make sense of that. I kept a journal here and there; I would jot down conversations or encounters that I wanted to remember. The first thing I did was put all those journal entries in a Word document. I thought it would turn into an essay.

I applied to the MFA program [at the University of Arizona] to give myself more time to write. It was a way to make it my job. I was in the program from 2014 to 2016; the first draft of the book was my thesis. 

Q. You have an unusual writing style. You don’t use quotation marks, and you sometimes write in Spanish without an English translation. Have you always written that way or was it a conscious choice?

It was a choice. It’s also something that, as a reader, I’ve always enjoyed. I like to think of both the characters and the reader as inhabiting each scene; every time you break up the page with quotation marks, you’re taking them out of the landscape of the scene. It also allows me, as a writer, to control the rhythm of the narrative. 

Q. You’ve taken some heat since the book was published. Are you surprised that it’s come mostly from people on the left who accuse you of profiting from others’ suffering?

I was prepared for pushback, but I expected it to come from the right—from Trump supporters or Border Patrol people who thought I was betraying the agency. But I’ve come to feel very grateful for that pushback. It’s made me think critically about what kind of a space a book like this takes up in the current political moment—and how it’s being positioned by the media and others. 

And I have to say, I agree with a lot of the people protesting my book. They’re arguing that we don’t need to give a forum to law enforcement—we need to listen to the migrants, the people who are risking their lives to cross the border. They have more to tell us about the border than any politician.

Q. Is that why you chose to give José—the undocumented worker whom you befriended and tried to help when he was apprehended at the border after returning to Mexico to tend to his dying mother—the last word in the book?

If you look at the entirety of the last section of the book, the narrator’s thoughts and preoccupations are slowly turned over to José’s story. I spent lots of time talking to José on the other side of the border. But in the end, no one could tell his story more eloquently and impactfully than he could. I wanted to preserve his voice—not interpret it through my own. 

Q. Do you have any updates on José or his family?

All I can say is that I’m still in touch with him and that he’s still living in a very precarious situation. 

Q. What do you make of the intense focus on border security?

The fact is that border crossings are at a 40-year low. What we’re seeing is political theater. They’re stoking hysteria and obfuscating who’s really affected by this issue. All of the talk about making the border safer and more secure, that rhetoric is directed at people who live thousands of miles away. If we look at who’s really in danger, it’s the poorest and most vulnerable—the migrants themselves. Hundreds of migrants die in the desert every year. It’s truly a humanitarian crisis. It’s unacceptable. Politicians aren’t going to have a change of heart and suddenly start talking about this in humanitarian terms, so we as a public need to do it. 

Author and SIS alumnus Francisco CantuExcerpt from The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú

At the station I was given the keys to a transport van and told to drive out to the reservation where two quitters had been seen wandering through the streets of a small village. When I arrived it was just after dark and I noticed few signs of life as I drove past the scattered homes, scanning for disheartened crossers. In the center of the village a small adobe church stood in an empty dirt lot, and I saw that the front door had been left ajar. I parked the van and left the headlights shining on the entrance. I walked to the heavy wooden door and leaned with all my weight to push it open, causing a loud and violent scraping to rise up and echo into the dim interior.

Inside the church, the light from my flashlight glinted off tiny strings of tinsel hanging from the ceiling. A large piece of fabric depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe was strung across the front wall, and beneath it I saw two figures lying on a blanket that had been spread out between the pews and the altar. As I approached, a man looked up at me and squinted, holding out his hand to block the light. We were resting a little, he said. It’s just that we are lost, muy desanimados. A woman huddled close to him, hiding her face. The man propped himself up on one elbow and told me that they had crossed four days ago, that their guide had left them behind on the first night when they’d failed to keep pace with the group. They were lost for days, he said, with nothing to drink but the filthy water from cattle tanks. Puede ser muy fea la frontera, I told him. The man shook his head. Pues sí, he replied, pero es aún más feo donde nosotros vivimos.

The man told me that they came from Morelos. My wife and I, we’re just coming to find work, he said. He rubbed his eyes in silence. I have fresh water for you, I told them. At the station there’s juice and crackers. The man looked at me and smiled weakly, then asked for a minute to gather their belongings. He stuffed some things into a backpack, then helped his wife to her feet. Her face was streaked with dried tears, and when she turned toward me I saw that she was pregnant. How many months are you? I asked. The woman looked away and the man answered for her. Seis meses. He smiled. My wife speaks perfect English, he said, shouldering the backpack. He stopped in front of the altar, bowing his head and making the sign of the cross. I waited at the door as he mumbled a prayer. Gracias, he whispered. Gracias.

Outside I looked at their faces in the glare of my headlights. The woman seemed young. Where did you learn English? I asked. Iowa, she told me quietly. I grew up there, she said, I even got my GED. She kept her head down and avoided my gaze as she talked, glancing up only briefly at my uniformed body. Why did you leave? I asked her. She told me that she had returned to Morelos to care for her younger siblings after their mother died. In Morelos I made some money teaching English at the kindergarten, she said, I even tutored the adults in my village, people preparing for the journey north. For a few seconds she seemed proud, and then she shook her head. But the money there, it isn’t enough. She glanced up at her husband. It was my idea to cross, she said. I wanted our child to have a life here, like I did.

The man took a moment to look at me in the light. Listen, he said, do you think you could bring us back to Mexico, como hermano? You could drive us down to the border, he pleaded, you could just leave us there, allí en la línea. Like a brother. I sighed and turned my head, squinting at the darkness beyond the church. I have to bring you in, I told him. It’s my job. The man took a deep breath and nodded and then climbed into the back of the transport van, holding out his arms to help his pregnant wife.

I gestured at a case of water bottles on the floor. You should drink, I told them. I grabbed the metal door of the cage and paused. What are your names? I asked. The man looked at me strangely and glanced at his wife. Then, as if it were nothing, they took turns introducing themselves. I repeated their names and I told them mine. Mucho gusto, I said. They replied with polite smiles. Igualmente. I turned my head and then bolted the cage and shut the door.

In the driver’s seat I turned to look at the couple through the plexiglass. The man held his wife and gently whispered to her, cradling her head. Just before I started the engine I could hear the soft sound of her sobbing. As I drove through the unmarked streets of the village, trying to find my way to the highway, I felt for a moment that I had become lost. Beyond the last house, I saw a white dog in the darkness at the edge of my headlights, staring into the night.

At the station, I sorted through their things with them, discarding perishables and sharp objects. I had them remove their belts and their shoelaces and I tagged their backpacks and handed them a claim ticket. I counted and took note of their money, in pesos and in dollars, and then handed it back to them, telling them to keep it close. Inside the processing center I filled out their voluntary return papers and entered their names into the computer. Before leaving them in their cell I wished them luck on their journey and asked them to be safe, to always think of their child.

Later that night, as I sat in the transport van listening to the calls come out over the radio, I realized I had forgotten their names.

Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018