Dr. Jessie Fields
The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches From The Border is a work of nonfiction that depicts the violence, brutality and injustice committed at the U.S. southern border on a daily basis. Francisco Cantú, the author, joined the Border Patrol at a young age, fresh out of college, having studied international affairs and immigration policy. He wanted to learn about the border first hand.
He describes, through the lives of the people crossing, why they attempt to cross the border, what happens to them when they do and how they are treated. His book includes the experiences of the very diverse border patrol agents he worked with.
Cantú’s writing is a personal and intimate account of working at the border in the field and then in an office gathering intelligence, what he calls intel. He describes the emotional impact of the work on him and along the way gives accounts of his dreams, dreams that are vivid with danger and death and tenderness.
The vast scope of border violence is conveyed in the book, along with the pain and suffering of people such as Jose Martinez-Cruz and his wife and children from whom he is separated, and is made palpable through Cantú’s caring friendship with them.
The young author’s relationship with his mother becomes closer during the course of the book as he is more able to share with her his own suffering from what he is experiencing. He does learn a great deal about the border, but at the beginning of the journey he did not contemplate the personal devastation it would wrought.
He has moving conversations with his mother throughout the book. In one such conversation his mother says, “It’s not just your safety I worry about. I know how a person can become lost in a job, how the soul can buckle when placed within a structure. You asked me once how it felt looking back on my career. Well the Park Service is an institution, an admirable one, but an institution nonetheless. If I’m honest, I can see now that I spent my career slowly losing a sense of purpose even though I was close to the outdoors, close to places I loved. You see, the government took my passion and bent it to its own purpose. I don’t want that for you.”
In my work as a doctor, I have seen how the institution of medicine can distort one’s passion to help people when the focus is on billing, and time with patients becomes relative value units for reimbursement. For me, working outside the institution in grassroots organizing, such as with the independent political movement, has helped me to nourish and maintain that passion.
The ongoing violence and brutality at the border and the rape and murder of women is deeply disturbing. Political corruption, past and present and continuing war are part and parcel of the worldwide migration crisis. A Memorial Day (5/27/19) New York Times article reports, “Entering the country at a rate of more than 5,000 each day, new arrivals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are departing border towns by the busload.” Another Times article in the same issue, “Running Out of Room on the Border” by Mitchell Ferman states:
“The government’s attempts at deterrence have included separating migrant families, deploying American troops to the border and returning asylum-seeking immigrants to Mexico while they await an immigration court hearing. The efforts have not worked, and makeshift facilities like the new one in McAllen, Texas have sprouted up along the 1,900-mile border in recent months to accommodate the new arrivals.”
There are many examples of inhuman and ineffective practices at the border. One such example is the practice of the Border Patrol agents defiling the belongings, the food and clothing, of migrants that they find. This practice is suppose to discourage the migrants from seeking to cross, but it is a way of destroying their hopes and it leaves them without food and water in the middle of the desert.
Death and defilement are everywhere at the border. Cantú describes the book Antigona Gonzalez, in which “Mexican poet Sara Uribe re-imagines the Greek tragedy Antigone set in modern Mexico.” In Sophocles’ play, Antigone could not bear the dictate of her uncle, the ruler Creon, to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain.
The poet Sara Uribe writes:
Count them all.
Name them so as to say: this body could be mine.
The body of one of my own.
So as not to forget that all the bodies without names are our
Simple acts of kindness are also possible at the border.
After processing her return papers, Cantú tended to the bruised feet of a woman who had been left by a group she was crossing with.
“I cleaned her feet one at a time with a disinfectant wipe, swabbing the fluid from the edges of her broken blisters and smearing them with ointment. Slowly, I unraveled a roll of white gauze around each pallid foot, then covered them gently with an elastic wrap. As I looked up, I saw the woman had been watching me with her head resting on her shoulder. Eres muy humanitario, oficial, she told me. I looked down at her feet and shook my head. No, I said, I’m not.”
To me the question that must be raised is the extent to which the policies and practices of the U.S. government are an adjustment to the horror at the border which exacerbates the crisis and causes even more death and destruction. It is up to the American people to see the human beings who are attempting to cross and to make clear that we will not adjust to a political system whose design results in their suffering and destruction. I believe The Line Becomes A River can be part of building a process reflective of our universal humanity.
Book by a Former Border Patrol Agent Brings Back Memories of My Life Shaped Near the Border
When I started reading The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú, I already had deep and strong opinions about life at the Border and the immigration issue. In fact, this very issue played a big role in my becoming an independent voter. Reading the first few sections of the book made me wonder if I would be disappointed with Mr. Cantú’s take on it, if he would fail to catch the essence of the story that I’ve been ardent about for most of my life.
I was born in Mexico in the early 70’s – the daughter of two U.S. citizen parents. My family had moved there four years before I was born, primarily because my father passionately wanted to live amongst a people he felt a special affinity for, a people that meant nearly everything to him – “they” had helped him “find God,” and he’s lived his life repaying “the debt” through humanitarian work, standard-of-living project development, international education efforts, and religious service to help any and all fulfill what he perceived as their much anticipated “destiny” to “blossom as the rose.” Prior to moving to Mexico, my family had lived on the Indian reservations of Arizona and New Mexico, doing much of the same. My older siblings had many adventures in Mexico, living a “fear-free” life, coming and going from neighborhood to neighborhood, from village to city and back, with a myriad of “unsupervised” experiences, living similarly to, and fully amongst, the native-born living around us. Mexico was a good, beautiful, safe and happy place.
When I was three years old, my father was invited to take a job at “Church headquarters” in the Mountain West. He worked there for a couple of years, then supervised a mission in Colombia, South America for three years, and then returned to the Mountain West to work on the planning and fundraising donor-end of projects similar to what he had previously been at the center of “in the field.” When I was going into 8th grade, my father found himself “unsatisfied” with his “desk job,” and wanted to get back “into the field.” So our family moved near Brownsville, Texas, at the southern border. I attended 8th grade and graduated from high school in the Rio Grande Valley. My parents still live there (my father a WWII vet about to turn 93 now).
I remember the beginning of the school year in 8th grade. Apparently, having noticed my birthplace as Mexico, an authority came by my Algebra class to ask me for my green card. Since I was a bolillo-gringa, my class roared with laughter at the sight.
My father was a “pastor” of a Spanish congregation in Brownsville, Texas. We were constantly interacting with immigrants, some legal and some not. Many stayed in our home (it seemed like a sporadic though continuous coming and going); my father was often visiting the Detention Center to help congregant family members who had been taken in by La Migra; I went with him a few times. We also delivered food and other necessities. My father helped migrant workers secure work on farms up north, with contacts he had from his previous project development work. I recall my father telling heart-wrenching stories of people connected to the congregation who had drowned in the river, or other tragic family separations. There were rumors that some had carved my father’s name and number under bridges, as someone who would be a trusted friend. I remember going to help immigrants fill out paperwork during the Reagan amnesty and during the big wave of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Guatemala; we set up camp at the Church to help crowds of people get their papers in order and submit them. This was my experience growing up. These were good, honest, humble, hard-working people, making better lives for themselves and for their families.
Of course, this all took place well before 9/11 and the very heavy crackdowns at the border and in the interior.
In law school, pre-9/11, I took an immigration course with a national leading expert on the topic, and on graduation, almost took a job with his firm. Though I didn’t end up in immigration law, I took on a few pro-bono cases later on. It never ceased to amaze me how nonsensical the laws were, and even more so, how unorganized the former INS and even ICE was. I had a pro-bono client post-9/11, wherein we spent a couple of years jumping through hoops and trying to prove that she came under a special “farm workers” provision that allowed for a work permit and a green card, only to discover right before the hearing that the INS already had a file that had “approved” my client, but it had been lost, and thus she had gone through years of “fear, trauma” and lack of work for her family for no reason.
The Democrats used to be the anti-immigration party. Reagan, and then Bush, were adamantly pro-immigration. Yes, it was tied into views about the labor force, a subject for another day (but I’ll note that I’m not a “fixed pie” economist. I believe we have room for robust legal immigration, and it’s about time we update our immigration laws).
So I found myself as Chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party in the early 2000’s, flamboozled by a minority faction in the party that was militantly anti-immigration. They always had a radical anti-immigration intra-party challenger for the incumbent congressman, but the challenger always lost. Until 2008 (a few years after my term). Jason Chaffetz, who beat the incumbent congressman in a primary, wasn’t supposed to be a radical conservative; he had family ties to the Dukakis family, and had served as chief of staff to the sitting Republican governor. Nonetheless, he could sense the rising of the “tea party,” and it seemed like he decided to capitalize on a wedge issue that he felt he could use amongst the conservative grassroots to get into office. His rhetoric about setting up “tent cities” for deportation and other blatantly anti-immigrant sentiment – when I knew he knew better – really hit a nerve with me, especially since I had served on the incumbent Congressman’s citizen immigration advisory committee, wherein we had developed an intelligent “compromise” position for well-thought-out comprehensive immigration reform. I knew Chaffez was creating “a war,” and exacerbating a problem in desperate need of a real solution. A similar thing happened by Mike Lee against Bob Bennett in 2010. And the rest is history. Now with Trump, the Republican party has completely transformed into an anti-immigration, xenophobic party.
It was the combination of finding myself with strongly held views that didn’t fit in either party, and also having had my eyes opened to an electoral process that was decidedly anti-democratic, that led me to become an independent and start fighting for democratic electoral reforms. I will note that I came to better understand and somewhat respect the views of the minority faction by interacting with them so much. On many occasions, I found myself disagreeing with them on policy – but better understanding where they were coming from – yet agreeing with them, to a large degree, on process (which I had been blind to before).
So back to Cantú’s book. Cantú started the book painting the Border Patrol pretty sympathetically, as though they were doing a service to the immigrants who were going to die in the desert. While I appreciated his sentiment, and it reminded me, importantly, that most of these guys are decent, just trying to do their job, I did keep wondering if he was going to tell the other perspective. I was so glad that he ended with the other perspective. We have laws that are doing more harm than good, and are completely unworkable. Before getting there, though, he waded us through the horrific scenes that have arisen by the ever-proliferating drug cartels. For me, as I read of the corrupt lawlessness, murder and villainous shows of power, I see images of Gotham — of a place I love that has been nearly lost, and that those fighting the war are going about it all wrong, and we need to restore trust, rule of law, humanity and honest prosperity. The tension is very real. Fear is driving the anti-immigration sentiment. It’s up to us as independents to dispel fear and restore trust. Cantú’s book talks about the dehumanization of our politics, and he gets philosophical – in a good way – about restoring our humanity. It is well worth the quick read.
Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.