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The line becomes a river
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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. Excerpted from The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

"I'M TIRED OF READING about the border in books," Francisco Cantu says one Christmas Eve to his mother, who is trying to talk him out of joining the Border Patrol. "I know it might be ugly, I know it might be dangerous, but I don't see any better way to truly understand the place." She is dubious. She was a ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, east of El Paso, and tells him there are a hundred other ways for the grandson of a Mexican immigrant to comprehend the border than joining a paramilitary bureaucracy. He is adamant: "Maybe it's the desert, maybe it's the closeness of life and death, maybe it's the tension between the two cultures we carry inside us. Whatever it is, I'll never understand it unless I'm close to it." So away he goes, down to America's most potent metaphor, its 2,000-mile partisan fault line. His mother recedes to the story's margins, returning now and then to prick his conscience, to tell him to mind his soul. "The Line Becomes a River," Cantu's account of four years as a border cop in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, arrives at a dire moment. The national head is spinning with fever visions of brown-skinned alien rapists and beheaders and terror gangs, and of a mythical wall that the president says will protect "us" from "them." The very idea of an American "us" that includes the foreign-born seems lost to a distant time, to a less terrified country that some of us are struggling to remember. As Cantu tells us what he learned, he bolsters his point - that it's hard to comprehend the border from books. This one challenges the reader to find the meaning, or some sense, in its loosely strung episodes, fragmentary encounters with border crossers and agents, clippings from books Cantu has read and the surreal dreams that haunt his fretful nights. Cantu finds out that border agents are not so much college boys like him, but former cops and soldiers, migrants from cold climates and crappy jobs. Some new arrivals have no idea what's going on at the border, but all are primed at the academy for narco warfare, with lurid PowerPoints of people killed by Mexican cartels: heads in an ice chest, bodies stacked in a cattle truck. This is what you're up against, this is what's coming, the instructor says. Except it isn't. The job is often boring, chasing footprints, staring at monitors, shuffling paper. "You don't want to bring in any bodies with your dope if you can help it," Cantu is told. "Suspects mean you have a smuggling case on your hands, and that's a hell of a lot of paperwork." The aliens we encounter are not narco bosses and murderous kidnappers but their victims: bewildered, disoriented, helpless migrants. Some are dead. They don't fit the terror profile. A weeping woman tells the agents arresting her that it's her 23rd birthday. She wants to be like Selena, and sings "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" on her way to detention. A man found in the fetal position has been drinking his urine for four days. Afat teenager lies sobbing in a mesquite thicket; the group left him behind. EACH MIGRANT HAS a wrenching story, but to agents these are just "wets," or "POWs," "plain old wets." Salvadorans are "el sals." "Quitters" are just that. Cantu finds two of them huddling in a church, a man and a woman. They had been lost for days, surviving on filthy water from cattle tanks. She is six months pregnant. Cantu gives them water bottles and asks their names, which he soon forgets. In case you think compassion is the rule, Cantu makes a confession. "It's true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze. And Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is." Maybe? "But the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they'll realize their situation," he adds, is hopeless. "And they'll quit right then and there, they'll save themselves." That, says Cantu, is "the sense in it all." Robbing migrants of water in 115-degree Sonoran heat to save them sounds like exquisitely tortured rationalizing. Recent news accounts and videos of agents destroying water caches suggest that Cantu's account is accurate, though the Border Patrol has also said it does not condone lifethreatening vandalism. So whose logic governs? Who is lying, who has gone rogue - Cantu and his buddies, or the agency itself? Later Cantu tips us to a secret he couldn't tell his own family - that he and his brother agents ran like a mob of teenage vandals: "I wanted to tell my uncle that I had known men to engage in senseless acts of defilement, depositing car seats and furniture on far-off hillsides and in remote washes, decorating cacti with women's undergarments, hanging twisted bike frames from the towering arms of saguaros, dislodging massive boulders to tumble down sloping mountainsides, and setting fire to anything that would burn - abandoned automobiles and trash piles and proud desert plants left to smoke and smolder through the night." They sound like poorly trained men with not enough to do. Yet this is a glancing admission, slipped passively into the narrative without elaboration. Cantu recounts moments of tender connection with frightened, injured border crossers. But he seems unwilling to look too closely at his complicity in despicable behavior, leaving a reader to worry about the fate of that close-up quest for enlightenment he told his mother he was after. We surmise early on that Cantu, his psyche under strain, is not long for the job. He loses sleep, he grinds his teeth, he has bad dreams about wolves. Then the book shifts abruptly. Cantu leaves the agency. Now he's a barista and studying for a master's degree. But here, finally, he takes us deep into a border story - that of his new friend José, 30 years in the United States, nabbed by the Border Patrol after returning from Mexico, where he had gone to see his dying mother. The last third of the book, as José and his family desperately fight his deportation, with Cantu's considerable help, makes a useful contribution to the literature of today's border. It lays bare, in damning light, the casual brutality of the system, how unjust laws and private prisons and a militarized border have shattered families and mocked America's myths about itself. "We mostly arrested the little people," Cantu tells José. "Smugglers, scouts, mules, coyotes. But mostly I arrested migrants, I confessed. People looking for a better life." He should have listened to his mother. In case you think compassion is the rule, the author makes some glancing confessions. LAWRENCE DOWNES, a writer and editor, covered immigration and politics for The Times's editorial board from 2004 to 2017.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Cantú narrates the stellar audio edition of his memoir about his time as a border-patrol agent in Arizona. He uses a manner that respectfully conveys the life-and-death struggles of the people he witnessed desperately trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. Cantú, raised in the Southwest by a single mother of Mexican heritage, resists the temptation to go for obvious ethnic vocal characterizations or demonstrative displays, instead opting for an understated delivery to relate the details of spouses separated from one another, parents separated from children, and border crossers facing the elements. When advocating on behalf of a friend who is a detained undocumented immigrant, Cantú speaks in tones that elicit understanding and empathy rather than pity. The passages recounting parent-child visitation at a detention center provide an especially memorable display of Cantú's narration style working in sync with his writing style. Cantú first shared parts of this narrative on the radio show This American Life; his excellent audiobook will appeal to fans of that show and of first-person nonfiction storytelling in general. A Riverhead hardcover. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
NAMED A TOP 10 BOOK OF 2018 BY NPR and THE WASHINGTON POST <br> SHORTLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL OF EXCELLENCE<br> FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITIC CIRCLE'S JOHN LEONARD PRIZE<br> <br> The instant New York Times bestseller, "A must-read for anyone who thinks 'build a wall' is the answer to anything." --Esquire <br> <br> For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Driven to understand the hard realities of the landscape he loves, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Plagued by a growing awareness of his complicity in a dehumanizing enterprise, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the full extent of the violence it wreaks, on both sides of the line.
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