Review for "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border" by Francisco Cantu (2018) Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In keeping with #NonfictionNovember, I really liked this book. I am glad that I did not read the many negative reviews of this before picking it up, much of which is not about the content but full of personal rancor towards the author, a former Border Patrol officer. Did these reviewers even read the book? Apparently not.
What the author does do is present a pretty fair and balanced view of U.S. and Mexican lives on both sides of the border. The first section covers his early days on patrol, catching people who activate sensors in the desert. There are many stories here–desperate immigrants wishing for a better life who are deserted by their coyotes (smugglers), people who live on the border whose properties are continually trashed and broken into by immigrants, those who aid cartels through drug smuggling. Both criminals and non-criminals are almost always rounded up and deported. There are also some pretty shocking accounts of Border Patrol agents being cruel and just plain racist (destroying immigrant water sources, calling them “wets”). In addition to this, the author describes countless dead bodies, those not fortunate enough to make it out of a scorching desert hell. The middle section of the book deals with Cantu’s moral conflicts and eventual disillusionment with the work after he is assigned to a desk job. The desk job involves profiling cartels, their victims almost always killed through unimaginable violence. Border Patrol officers have a particularly high turnover rate, which, for a morally conflicted person such as Cantu, is wholly understandable.
The last section of the book is the most poignant, in my opinion. After his departure from the Border Patrol, Cantu befriends a Mexican man from Oaxaca named Jose. Although he is undocumented, he is a hardworking man with a wife and three sons. Returning from a trip to visit his mother in Oaxaca, he is caught by Border Patrol attempting to cross back into the U.S. Cantu assists the family by showing up to his trial, getting him a lawyer, taking his sons to visit him in detention. I won’t tell you Jose’s fate, other than to say that the last part of this book is not the author’s but the voice of Jose himself.
Nowhere in this book does Cantu position himself in favor of U.S. Border Patrol policies. While participating in their enforcement as an officer, he is a part of the institutional violence against immigrants, which he acknowledges. The story of Jose is a good balancing act for the critics to show that immigration presents an ever present challenge with no easy solutions. People on both sides of the border ultimately suffer.
I recommend that you don’t read the negative reviews and read this book for yourself.