To read the news right now is to read about immigration. Whether it’s legislative proposals being discussed hotly in Washington, editorials making the case for a particular position, or descriptions of ICE raids happening locally (including their effect on the community), it would require an act of willful blindness to miss the elevated place that immigration currently has in our national discourse.
Taking a deeper look into questions of immigration and national identity, we have a host of acclaimed works to choose from. Some of these have emerged from writers whose work (past or present) has given them a position to observe immigration policies firsthand. Valeria Luiselli’s acclaimed Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, currently a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, is one particularly vivid example, as it originates from volunteer work in which Luiselli serves as a courtroom translator for children who may be deported.
Her book powerfully evokes the trauma faced by these children, and Luiselli also explores how language, as well as the gulfs that can emerge through translation, can also play a role in further complicating the issue. Luiselli is a powerful and empathic writer, and is able to precisely illuminate the human cost of the United States’ immigration policies — thereby making a powerful case for why those policies are in need of reform.
Francisco Cantú also brings an abundance of experience to his book about immigration, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border. In his case, however, it’s a very different kind of experience: Cantú spent four years working for the U.S. Border Patrol in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and has familial roots in Mexico via his mother’s side of the family. In other words, his life has the potential to contain a host seemingly contradictory perspectives on immigration. Cantú tells his story in three parts, the first two of which focus on his time in the Border Patrol. Early on, he writes about heated conversations with his mother, who worked extensively as a park ranger. “I know it might be dangerous,” he tells her, “but I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.”
Throughout the book, his mother frequently acts a counterpoint to Cantú’s perspective on his work: she points out that, through his heritage and the fact that he grew up near the border between the U.S. and Mexico, he has plenty of knowledge of the area already.
The first part of The Line Becomes a River alternates between vignettes of Cantú’s experiences working in the Border Patrol, and scenes from the history of the region. (The origin of the title is given here: it’s a reference the point where the border between two nations becomes the Rio Grande.) There’s a lot of repartee between Cantú and his fellow agents in the first section, giving a sense of their everyday experiences. Woven therein, however, are allusions to the dangers faced by people crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, through harsh territory where water is sparse and the heat can be overwhelming.
By the end of the first part, Cantú writes of having “dreams of dead bodies and crumbling teeth.” The second part of the book describes his time moving away from, and then shifting back into, working in the field. By the third and final part he’s left this line of work and enrolled in graduate school — until a coworker’s encounter with the Border Patrol places Cantú in a far different position than the one he’d previously occupied. That said, this is a complex narrative: as phrased here, Cantú’s efforts to help his friend benefit from the knowledge he accumulated through his time in the Border Patrol.
Cantú’s book excels in finding the place where knowledge and empathy converge — and where they don’t always match up. And while Cantú’s metaphorical journey doesn’t feel overwrought, it does give a sense of progression: that knowing a place can also mean understanding the full effects of the work you’ve done there. In Tell Me How It Ends, Luiselli draws abundant power from conveying the voices of others as well as her own distinctive perspective. By the end of The Line Becomes a River, Cantú has ceded space to the voice of another, and it’s an extraordinarily powerful moment — one that’s artistic, but also informative. For some readers, it will be sure to change how they feel when reading about immigration in the news.