Francisco Cantú served as a border patrol agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012. A former Fulbright fellow, he recently received an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. His essays and translations appear frequently in Guernica, and his work can also be found in The Best American Essays 2016, Ploughshares, and Orion, among others. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. The Line Becomes a River will be published by Riverhead Books in February 2018.
An excerpt from The Line Becomes a River:
When I called, a small boy answered the phone. I introduced myself as a friend of José. Are you his son? I asked. The boy was silent. I work with your dad, I continued. I heard he’s at the border, trying to get across. Is he OK? The boy breathed heavily into the receiver and I wondered if I still sounded like a border cop, if there was something undisguisable in my voice that told him I had once pursued men like his father through the desert. After several moments he finally spoke. Do you want my mom to call you? he asked. Sure, I said, and then he hung up.
Half an hour later my phone rang. Soy Lupe, the woman on the other line said, esposa de José. She was silent for a moment, as if considering how much to tell me. Listen, I wanted to blurt out, it’s too hot, it’s not worth crossing, José should wait. I’ve been waiting to hear from him for days, Lupe finally said. Just before you called I was on the phone with the Mexican Consulate. They told me José was arrested two days ago by Border Patrol. He has a court hearing later today, at two. They didn’t say where. Lupe’s voice sounded thin on the other line, as if it were all she could do just to repeat what had been told to her. Today at two? I paced, old procedures and timelines rising up in my mind. I think I know where he’ll be, I told her. Can I call you back?
It had been months since I talked to Morales, but I called him anyways. Hey vato, do you still work at the courthouse? I asked. Sí, guey, he said, but not today. Por qué? I think I have a friend that’s getting Streamlined. No way. Yeah, a guy I work with. Shit, Morales said. A few years out of the patrol and you’re out there making friends with mojados? I tried to find a comeback. I’m just kidding, Morales said before I could reply—I know how it is. Of course you do, I shot back at him, did you think I forgot about your mojado roots? You better not forget to wear your uniform when you show up to court, guey, they might accidentally deport your ass. Oh damn, Morales laughed, shots fired!
I asked Morales if the Streamline proceedings were still open to the public. Yeah, he said, hippies and protesters go all the time. Second floor of the courthouse— be there by 1:30. I looked at my watch. Will I be able to see him? Sure, Morales said, if you can find him. Everyone will be facing away from you, pendejo. Can I bring his family? I asked. I don’t know if they have papers. It shouldn’t matter, Morales assured me, no one will mess with them. Will they be able to talk to him? I asked. No, he answered, matter-of-factly. But if you sit on the righthand side of the courtroom, in the front two rows next to the wall, you should be able to catch his eye as the marshals walk him out.
Outside the courthouse, Lupe introduced me to her three boys and the pastor from their church. The proceedings had just begun as we entered the courtroom, and I immediately noticed the smell—a smell I hadn’t encountered in years, the sharp scent of dozens of unwashed bodies that had struggled through the desert for days, skin sweating and sunbaked. From his bench the judge loomed over the room in black robes, a small white face peering out from beneath the massive seal of the United States of America, a giant eagle with its head turned away.
Are you a citizen of Mexico? Sí. On or about August 31st, 2015, did you enter the United States near Lukeville, Arizona? Sí. Did you come through a designated port of entry? No. How do you plead in the charge of illegal entry? Culpable, señor.
It occurred to me that I had never before seen so many men and women in shackles, never laid eyes on a group of people so diminished—and while I had apprehended and processed countless men and women for deportation, many of whom I sent to pass through this very same room, there was something dreadfully altered in their presence here between towering and cavernous walls, lorded over by foreign men with little inkling of the dark desert nights or the hard glare of the sun, the sweeping expanses of stone and shale, the foot-packed earthen trails, the bodies laid bare before the elements, the trembling of the bones from heat, from cold, from want of water. In my encounters with migrants at the end of their road through the desert, there was always the closeness of the failed journey, the fading but still-hot spark from the last flame of the crossing. But here, in the stale and swirling air of the courthouse, it was clear that something vital had gone missing in the days since apprehension, some final essence of the spirit had been stamped out in the slow crush of confinement.
The pastor leaned and pointed toward a grey-haired man who had just stood to walk to the front of the courtroom. He whispered to the boys—it’s your dad. They looked at the man and then at each other, wide-eyed. Es él, the pastor said, gesturing again, es él. The boys sat forward in their seats as if to get closer. No está, the boys confirmed with each other, no, no está. Yes, the pastor said emphatically, that’s your father. You don’t recognize him because his hair has grown out and he has stubble now, but look, you can even see his bald spot. The boys looked at each other. Él es, Lupe said, finally. It’s him. The boys sat on their hands, dumbstruck, their mouths agape.