The Line Becomes a River: Illegal immigrants want to work

The Line Becomes a River is by a guy who worked as a Border Patrol agent between 2008 and 2012. It is a worthwhile book if you want to understand the texture of land-based illegal immigration and border control (only a subset of illegal immigration; a lot of our uninvited permanent guests showed up in an airplane on a visa of some sort and then either asked for asylum or simply stayed).

The book repeatedly makes the point that illegal immigrants are good people and want to work:

At the station I processed the man for deportation. After I had taken his fingerprints he asked me if there was any work for him at the station. You don’t understand, I said, you’ve just got to wait here until the bus comes. They’ll take you to headquarters and then on to the border. You’ll be back in Mexico very soon. I understand, he assured me, I just want to know if there is something I can do while I wait, something to help. I can take out the trash or clean out the cells. I want to show you that I’m here to work, that I’m not a bad person. I’m not here to bring in drugs, I’m not here to do anything illegal. I want to work. I looked at him. I know that, I said.

My mother sighed and looked up at the ceiling. There are ways to learn these things that don’t put you at risk, she said, ways that let you help people instead of pitting you against them. But that’s just it, I offered—I can still help people. I speak both languages, I know both cultures. I’ve lived in Mexico and traveled all across the country. I’ve seen towns and villages that were emptied out by people going north for work. Good people will always be crossing the border, and whether I’m in the Border Patrol or not, agents will be out there arresting them. At least if I’m the one apprehending them, I can offer them some small comfort by speaking with them in their own language, by talking to them with knowledge of their home.

it I saw two figures lying on a blanket that had been spread out between the pews and the altar. As I approached, a man looked up at me and squinted, holding out his hand to block the light. We were resting a little, he said. It’s just that we are lost, muy desanimados. A woman huddled close to him, hiding her face. The man propped himself up on one elbow and told me that they had crossed four days ago, that their guide had left them behind on the first night when they’d failed to keep pace with the group. They were lost for days, he said, with nothing to drink but the filthy water from cattle tanks. Puede ser muy fea la frontera, I told him. The man shook his head. Pues sí, he replied, pero es aún más feo donde nosotros vivimos. The man told me that they came from Morelos. My wife and I, we’re just coming to find work, he said. He rubbed his eyes in silence. I have fresh water for you, I told them. At the station there’s juice and crackers. The man looked at me and smiled weakly, then asked for a minute to gather their belongings. He stuffed some things into a backpack, then helped his wife to her feet. Her face was streaked with dried tears, and when she turned toward me I saw that she was pregnant.

The author describes encounters with drug smugglers and other criminals, but stresses that the majority of illegal immigrants are looking for work that would be legal if they were documented U.S. residents or citizens.

So the book supports the open borders abolish-ICE point of view? Yes, but it also inadvertently supports the “build the wall” point of view! The immigrants described, no matter how long they’ve lived in the U.S., never graduate from Welfare. They work at minimum wage and have 2-6 children. Thus they’re entitled to subsidized public housing, food stamps, Obamaphones, and either Medicaid or subsidized Obamacare health insurance policies. So they are simultaneously workers cheered by advocates of expanded immigration and lifetime welfare recipients decried by opponents. Example:

Agents found Martin Ubalde de la Vega and his three companions on the bombing range more than fifty miles north of the border. The four men had been in the desert for six days and had wandered in the July heat for over forty-eight hours without food or water.  … I had been charged with watching over de la Vega until his condition was stable, at which point I would transport him to the station to be processed for deportation. I settled in a chair next to him, and after several minutes of silence, I asked him to tell me about himself. He answered timidly, as if unsure of what to say or even how to speak. He apologized for his Spanish, explaining that he knew only what they had taught him in school. He came from the jungles of Guerrero, he told me, and in his village they spoke Mixtec and farmed the green earth. He was the father of seven children, he said, five girls and two boys. His eldest daughter lived in California and he had crossed the border with plans to go there, to live with her and find work. We spent the following hours watching telenovelas and occasionally he would turn to ask me about the women in America, wondering if they were like the ones on TV.

So this guy will be earning a middle class wage as soon as American employers need a lot of Mixtec speakers. The drug dealers, at least, have credible plans to make money:

We caught our first dope load only two days after arriving at the station. We were east of the port of entry when a sensor hit, just three miles away. … Two hundred fifty pounds of dope—not bad for your second day in the field. I asked Cole if we should follow the foot sign up into the pass, if we should try to track down the backpackers. Hell no, he said, you don’t want to bring in any bodies with your dope if you can help it. Suspects mean you have a smuggling case on your hands, and that’s a hell of a lot of paperwork—we’d have to stay and work a double shift just to write it up. Besides, he said, the prosecutors won’t take it anyway. Courts here are flooded with cases like this.

On the ride back to the station, the kid regained some composure. He told me he was eighteen, that he had planned to go to Oregon to sell heroin, un puño a la vez.

The book leaves some questions unanswered, e.g., why didn’t all of the people the author catches immediately claim asylum and thus delay their deportation for a few years? Why didn’t everyone find a young companion (who at least can credibly claim to be under 18) with whom to cross the border and then stay together after being caught under the Obama Administration’s policy of releasing parents if they had been snagged with a child?

As a taxpayer, I was horrified to read about the money being spent. The cost of border patrol agents, including pension and benefits, is staggering. Helicopters are flying constantly, notably for medical evacuation of dehydrated migrants found by these highly paid border patrol agents. These aren’t $350/hour Robinsons, but $1,500/hour Eurocopters (which become $4,000/hour Eurocopters when federally operated; 40,000 aircraft hours per year in 2014!). I wonder if we could simply pay the Mexicans to patrol the border. If we offered them $10 billion per year and then subtracted the cost of lifetime welfare (about $2 million?) for every unauthorized person who slipped through, I have to believe that they would be a lot more efficient and effective. It would also cut down on gun fights between U.S. agents and bad guys, which have killed 123 officers since 1904. The author of the book makes the job sound incredibly dangerous and spends quite a few pages recounting his vivid dreams. The Marines on Iwo Jima faced only token resistance by comparison. The author never explains why Border Patrol agents are able to purchase life insurance at a lower cost than other federal employees from an independent nonprofit association. Either the underwriters are pinheads or carrying a gun for the Border Patrol is actually less hazardous than sitting at a desk in a D.C. bureaucracy.

Given that immigration policy will determine the future of the U.S., I recommend reading the book. I don’t think it will change anyone’s mind, though. Folks who support more immigration will be cheered by the stories of all of the big-hearted hard-working migrants who come to the U.S. to work. Folks who are against more immigration won’t be surprised to learn that the best-case scenario painted by the author is someone who earns minimum wage, is entitled to nearly every variety of U.S. welfare, and doesn’t commit any crimes.

More: read The Line Becomes a River

14 thoughts on “The Line Becomes a River: Illegal immigrants want to work

  1. Thank you for taking the time and effort to thoughtfully review this book. Although I’m interested in what it has to say and I might pick it up at some point in the future, I need to skip it for now. I can see that the author must have put a lot of effort, care and time into it and having his perspective in the world is important. I’m also convinced by your wonderful review (and I’ve read some of the others on Amazon) that it is not going to change my mind in the slightest, you’re 100% correct about that.

  2. I wonder if the welfare is worth it, for the chance for these workers’ next generation to do what first-generation Americans have done since the beginning of this country: enter the middle class.

  3. Please stick to reviewing the book and leave out the politics. Spouting your views from Boston when you have no idea how things work near the border or who does the real work in this country is just wrong. Talking about your views (not the book) on immigration and who draws welfare is irrelevant. You need to stop saying things that are not true at worst and misleading at best. Only 60% or so of immigrants draw welfare. That is fact. Look it up. Yes some get food stamps for their kids. So do a lot of native born Americans. Much of the Section 8 low cost housing you complain about is for American born people who do work but do not make enough to pay rent in your crazy high cost city. That is your local problem and has nothing to do with the book. Out west immigrants live in low cost housing they pay for with wages from manual labor or lawn care or other cash jobs that no native born citizen will do. Who do you think picks your veggies or cleans those nice hotels you stay in?

    “while illegal immigrant households primarily benefit from food programs and Medicaid through their U.S.-born children.”

    • bill: your comment perfectly illustrates why statistics won’t convince anyone. You see it as a benefit to current Americans if a group of folks that is 60 percent welfare-dependent comes in. Others will see a group of folks that is 60 percent welfare-dependent as a cost.

      (Separately, as the undocumented immigrants described in the book get more settled, e.g., via approved asylum claims or their U.S.-born children reaching 18 and sponsoring them, they’ll be better-positioned for welfare programs, such as free housing, that may currently exclude the undocumented.)

  4. This whole immigration friction would not exist if immigrants assimilate into the culture and society of the country they are migrating to. The legal immigration process is designed to do just that, but for illegal immigrant, we have no control over it.

  5. You guys just do not get it. Most of the welfare cost you complain about is really a TAX on food. Those illegal and legal immigrant workers collect welfare and small wages and do the all back breaking farm and ranch and food production work that no one else will do. It has been that way for centuries…..

    Those immigrants are why the US has so much low cost high quality food. And why our farmers are so well paid and how they in turn feed us and a lot of poor nations.

    • That’s a great point. It is not as though we could import food that requires a lot of labor input from some other country.

      says “Immigrants and their U.S.-born children now number approximately 86.4 million people, or 27 percent of the overall U.S. population, according to the 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS).”

      So agriculture employs approximately 27 percent of US workers?

    • If you call it “quality food”, this immigrant is choking with laughter.

      I don’t understand what to get here. Want more immigrants? why not consider importing 150 million Chinese via legal channels.
      The discussion is not as much about ethnicity, but more about a legal process or lack thereof. It’s an adverse selection where only those who dare to deny the laws will succeed.

    • Suggesting that a porous southern border is a form of food subsidy is perhaps fair enough.

      Everyone says that it’s “work that no one else will do”, but of course that’s nonsense. Citizens and legal immigrants absolutely will do the work, although I agree that the market-clearing wage may be higher. (Of course I jest; one would never suggest that the modern US adopt a market-based solution to anything.)

      And yet, if we really wish, there are myriad other ways to subsidise food without these externalities. To pick one crazy example, we could stop paying farmers to NOT grow things.

  6. Super powers grow their own food to control their own economy. Sort of economic and social insurance. People are happy if they are well fed. Plus we have a lot of the good farm and ranch versus other countries. And we do import a lot of food from Mexico.

    The issue with immigrants and farm work is the work is so hard the workers are constantly looking for better jobs. And since it is so hard to get into the country NOW they bring their wives and stay. So at the end of the 2-3 “seasons” of farm work they find better jobs slaughtering beef or cleaning toilets or emptying bed pans or ??? And since they cannot go back to Mexico even to visit Mom they end up having US born kids.. And after 30 years of hard work many of them draw a small social security check and have green cards due to those US kids and US jobs. And the US kids are doctors and contractors and engineers.

    And not all immigrants do farm work. As an example my next door neighbor is a bilingual Surgical Nurse. He was almost a Doctor in Mexico. When he emigrated here they wanted him to go back to med school. Then his wife got PG so he changed to nursing to pay the bills. He works about 50 hours a week. He also owns and rents property in his spare time and does all the yard and maintenance work. His wife runs a beauty shop. His kids have both grown up and become college graduate professionals. How do you count them in your 27% ??

    Or I could talk about my nieces husband. His Dad is from Italy and his Mom is from here. He is a first generation US born citizen. He its bilingual. He is a PhD Pharmacist. His parents run a clothing import business. They are still working in their 70s because they both like to work. How do you count them in your 27% ??

    Look around. I bet you personally know lots of immigrants or first generation immigrants who contribute a ton to the US economy and country.

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