After serving as a Border Control Agent for four years, Francisco Cantu entered the MFA program in creative non fiction at the University of Arizona in part to understand through writing the nature of his experience on the front lines of the illegal immigration debate.
The result of his graduate school endeavor is a wonderful book that provides us with a calm and rare perspective in this time of acrimonious public debate in the age of a president who has no trouble calling immigrants for Central America snakes and who creates the specter that much urban crime is due to the marauding of lawless El Salvador gangs.
After his undergraduate education when he studied economics and international law, he wanted to see life on the border up close. His decision to enlist in the service was over the mild objections of his proud Mexican mother, a retired Park Ranger with a love of Southwest nature, who worried that he would be quickly turned into a heartless and callous human being. She theorized that there was no way that he would not become complicit in the anti-human values and practices of the institution charged with protecting the vast and porous border.
He writes vividly about the desperation of the seekers and the various ways they meet their deaths, death being “the ultimate risk in the game of chance.” The unfortunate die through starvation and dehydration and at that hands of other humans: unscrupulous coyotes (guide who escort the wanderers for a steep price), cartel underlings following orders from a drug lord, and Border Patrol agents in fear of their own lives. The beauty of the desert and the companionship of decent men provides some relief, but far too often the desert landscape is a dreary wasteland inhospitable to humans and an agent lives up to the stereotype of the sadistic racist that fills the minds of many Americans who have never been within 1000 miles of the border.
The book – part documentary revealing the inner workings of a workplace and part memoir revealing the inner workings of a sensitive mind – is informed by knowledge that seems recently acquired by this young writer. Accounts of the “moral injury” suffered by Iraq War vets who experience grief and remorse because they have come to accept that which they know is morally wrong provides an insight into his own struggles with the futility and inhumanity of his own job. The ideas of C.G. Jung about dream life enable him to read his own dreams, dreams in which he frequently feels the paw of a wolf heavy on his chest and the wolf’s hot breath on his face. From Jung he learns about the necessity of recognizing the way in which “humanity’s black collective shadow” falls over all of us. From Jung he realizes the necessity of recognizing in oneself the “self-same nature of the other.” Cantu’s empathic account is testimony that he learned Jung’s lesson’s well.
Another perspective on his experience is provided by Historian Tim Snyder whose Bloodlands documents the millions of deaths at the hands of Hitler and Stalin in Easter Europe in the 30s and 40s. Snyder charges his fellow historians and the general public to put the huge numbers of the various genocides into perspective and to be good humanists by turning the numbers back into people. While Cantu presents the 400 death in the years of the California Gold Rush and the 3000 deaths in Juarez in 2010, it’s the human stories that he is drawn to: the woman who has had to leave her dead eight year old daughter on the trail, the two brothers who cross the border more as a lark than as necessity.
The most extended account of one of the human casualties of our contradictory border policy is his story of Jose, a restaurant employee who patronizes Cantu’s coffee shop (he’s working there during his graduate school years) every morning. Jose has been living in the states for 30 years, has been married for fifteen and has three boys, 15, 10 and 8. He’s an illegal who like thousands of others operates under the radar and tries to call little attention to himself. His trouble begins when he leaves the country for the funeral of his mother in Oaxaca and is apprehended when he tries to sneak across the border. Thus, begins a period of incarceration and a series of pleas attempts, partially orchestrated by Cantu and navigated by a savvy immigration attorney. Working against incredible odds (only 1/100 of similar case are granted asylum), Cantu with the help of Jose’s wife builds a collection of documents – rental agreements, pay stubs, birth certificates, utility bills – that are the “bulging dossier of a life lived on the workaday margins” and gathers a collection of testimonies from friend and clergymen, all designed to make the case that this human being is a good husband and father, a hard worker, and a law-abiding citizen. Jose does not beat the odds, leaving Cantu with the challenge of getting the boys across the border occasionally to meet with their father.
Cantu wonders whether the time-consuming project of securing Jose’s freedom to remain in the US is not driven by his desire to learn more about the fates of those he detained during his Border Patrol years. He claims that he didn’t give much thought to their post-arrest lives. But he also asks a bigger question: whether the devotion to his good friend Jose is not an act of redemption, an earnest attempt to avoid his mother’s prophesy that he would be forever scarred by the nasty work he was called upon to do.
There’s no mention of Trump’s wall but it’s clear that Cantu would deplore this simplistic and misguided attempt to address a very complicated problem. Can we every devise a solution that accounts for mother-love that drives a man to jeopardize his clandestine status by leaving and then re-entering the country? Must the river always be changed to a line?