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Book Review ‘Cruel watertight system’ a matter of life and death for migrants on the US-Mexico border

The Line Becomes a River
by Francisco Cantu
(Bodley Head, £14.99)

LAST year, an Amnesty International report revealed that an already dangerous journey for tens of thousands of refugees attempting to cross the Mexico-US border has become deadlier still as a result of Donald Trump’s executive order on border control and immigration.

According to Amnesty, the US is building a “cruel watertight system” to prevent people in need from receiving international protection and Mexico is all too willing to play the role of the US gatekeeper. That strategy ignores the fact that these are people with no other choice but to flee their homes if they want to survive, the report stressed.

Trump’s wall, his controversial orders and the ever-expanding immigration detention centres will not stop people from trying to enter the US. Instead, they will be forced to take deadly routes through the desert, by river and by sea. In this sick cat-and-mouse game, the only losers are the hundreds of thousands desperately fleeing deadly violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

That reality is made explicit in Francisco Cantu’s stunning memoir, a personal quest to make sense of the complexities of the US-Mexico border. The 23-year-old author, a third-generation Mexican-American, enrolled as an agent for the US border patrol and, from 2008 to 2012, experienced at first hand the horrors and atrocities endured by thousands of “crossers” facing death by hunger, lack of water, narco violence or by the brutality of the “coyotes” who smuggle people across the US border, usually for an exorbitant fee.

“I’m tired of reading about the border in books,” the narrator tells his mother, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant herself. “Stepping into a system doesn’t mean the system becomes you.”

But, during his years as a border agent, Cantu realises that that is not the case. In The Line Becomes A River, there are moments of compassion and humanity but mostly this is an account of human desperation.

After suffering ever-more disturbing nightmares with wolves, caves and dead migrants in the desert, Cantu finally decides to leave his job, but, when his immigrant friend Jose travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and doesn't return, the author discovers that the border has migrated with him.

This is an honest and moving memoir of human tragedy and systemic failings — the massacres, the narco burial grounds and the deportations — interspersed with illuminating historical reflections on the creation of the US-Mexico border, the increasing narco-violence in the border towns and the way journalists, dehumanising each case, portray the immigrant experience.

“What would redemption look like?” Cantu asks. An answer presents itself in the epilogue as he crosses the Rio Grande.

“I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood,” he writes.

“All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”




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