Francisco Cantù started to dream about finding bodies in the desert. He had joined the U.S. Border Patrol in 2008, right after finishing college, to experience working in the scrublands of the Southwest. He was also fluent in Spanish and the descendant of Mexican immigrants; he would be well-positioned, he thought, to help the men, women, and children who too often met harsh fates while crossing to the U.S. But the realities of the job soon began to weigh on him. He detained refugees, squared off against drug runners, and chased families on foot. “I felt like I was dealing with everything fine,” he says. Then he would dream of discovering corpses in the brush, and of his teeth falling out, and once of killing a boy in a shoot-out. “It was kind of like my own subconscious shaking me and being like, ‘You are not OK. This is not normal.’”
Cantú spent three and a half abnormal years with the Border Patrol, an experience he chronicles in his new memoir, The Line Becomes a River. The book follows his progression from an American University student, obsessed with knowing more about the border after studying it in school, to an agent trying to reckon with the suffering he comes to witness. Soon after completing his training, he realizes just how grueling the conditions are for the migrants trying to cross. He finds a young man wailing in the desert, abandoned by the smugglers he’d hired to get him to the U.S., and left with only a half-liter of water. He recovers the body of a man, dead from exposure in the August heat. When Cantú later takes a desk job, collecting and disseminating intelligence reports, he receives daily emails containing photos of dismembered corpses, men skinned alive, and a decapitated head—the handiwork of Mexican cartels. “I sort of felt like I knew what I was stepping into, but I was really naïve about how the individual interactions would affect me,” he says.
Woven into the story are explanations of the historical factors that have made the border such a hellscape for crossers. In the 1990s, bureaucrats assumed that if the U.S. cracked down on easy crossing points in border towns, migrants wouldn’t gamble on trying to traverse the desert, given the extreme conditions. But that proved a miscalculation. Between 2000 and 2016, the Border Patrol recorded the deaths of more than 6,000 people trying to flee Mexico. “We’re weaponizing the landscape with our current policy,” Cantú says. “There’s a humanitarian crisis that’s happening on our own soil, and we’re not really talking about it at the level we should be.”
Despite the death and heartache, Cantú was struck by how routine the job became. “The training process is really set up so that these extraordinary things seem normal,” he says. In the book, the men he works with laugh about an agent who, late one night, accidentally runs over a Native American, passed out drunk in the road. Later, while on patrol, Cantú and two other agents see a group of migrants scatter in the brush. He watches as the other agents slash the water bottles and piss on the food and clothes left behind, to discourage them from continuing once they emerge from hiding. Cantú wonders how he might one day explain what he has seen. He’d promised his mother that he wasn’t going to become someone else once he joined the Patrol, but it’s inevitable.
In time, Cantú’s dreams and conscience become too much to bear. He quits the Patrol and returns to civilian life. But the border still haunts him. In the end, he realizes that the issues at play in the borderlands are far more fraught and complex than he imagined. He wrote his memoir to make sense of what he saw and explain why his time with the Patrol only complicated the questions he had about the region. “I don’t want people to come away from the book feeling like they have an answer for any of this,” he says. “So, when you hear people giving these simple solutions, or these rhetorical suggestions that somehow building a wall will fix this issue, or somehow this one bill is going to fix it, I hope that people smell that that’s off.”
This story appears in the print edition of the February 2018 issue, with the headline “Boundary Issues.”