Former border agent shows the inhumanity and heartbreak

The Line Becomes a River. Francisco Cantu. Penguin Random House. 

Anyone reading this book will realise that building a wall between the United States and Mexico is a lunatic scheme. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that according to the New York Times, Donald Trump does not read books.

Francisco Cantu's brief but lyrical memoir of his time as a border agent and the tragedy of his friend caught on the wrong side of the line a few years later is a convincing condemnation of the inhumanity of the border itself, let alone the sheer impractically of making it leak-proof by throwing up a Bill Clinton-inspired 3000km concrete wall that could cost $US15 billion or much more.

On a more human and practical level, this book describes one man's experience of policing the barrier as it is now. Already, with just part of the wall, the arid moonscape has claimed dozens of lives as desperate illegals (poor workers and drug couriers alike) chance their luck on getting safely to the promised land. This arid world of violence is no place for the faint-hearted and that the Spanish-speaking author, whose mother is Mexican, is able to instil some tenderness into the tale is one of his strengths as a writer. He describes the tracking skills learned as a border agent and the callousness demanded of such agents as they deal with the frail humanity attempting to cross the malpais, or Badlands, of Arizona.

The would-be immigrants are squeezed between the Mexican gangs who promise deliverance and the American patrols who see them as little more than vermin. The experience of being part of all this is too much for a man of some sensitivity and Cantu leaves the job after a few years. But it all comes back to haunt him in the final and most moving part of his narrative.

Here he tells of a Mexican he befriended some time later who gets caught up in the web of tragedy woven about the border. Both the ugly concrete slabs that Trump has labelled "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful and beautiful" and the mental anguish of families tormented by being torn apart and facing imprisonment or even death in efforts to reunite. The Mexican friend writes: "They can take my money, they can rob my family, they can lock me away, but I will keep coming back until I am together again with my family."

The drug pushers have less savoury reasons for crossing the border but greed makes them no less determined. There seems to be a futility about the sheer idiocy and cruelty of slashing through the ancient landscape with a man-made barrier, and Cantu's final sentence sums it up. He is wading in the shallow Rio Grande, which forms part of the border, "crossing the river time and again until I forgot in which country I stood".

 - Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer

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