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