Patrolling South Texas for Illegal Immigrants

Border Patrolman Jorge Diaz left Mexico at 12. For 20 years, he's trolled the South Texas brush for illegal compatriots.

We get out of the car as the train comes to a halt. Diaz's agents have asked the conductor to stop. It's a Union Pacific train with an American flag insignia and a slogan that reads, "Building America." Bright-colored graffiti covers the lower half, and looking at it, I'm reminded of where the train has come from. Several months before, while working on a story in Mexico, I went to the gritty Mexico City suburb where this particular line originates. In one afternoon, I watched about 50 young men leap onto the boxcars as a train pulled out of the station and chugged toward the United States.

This far north, few immigrants remain on the trains. By this point in the journey, many have already been deported, set out on foot or opted to negotiate the borderlands guided by smugglers with trucks or vans.

Four agents clamber onto the black boxcar, each positioning himself on a corner. They identify a lone immigrant inside and call out over the radio.

The recent crackdown at the border includes 6,000 new Border Patrol agents by the end of the year, as well as Operation Streamline, which in some areas sends immigrants to jail for entering the country illegally.
The recent crackdown at the border includes 6,000 new Border Patrol agents by the end of the year, as well as Operation Streamline, which in some areas sends immigrants to jail for entering the country illegally.
Diaz and his wife, Yolanda, live on a 200-acre ranch. They regularly apprehend immigrants trying to cross the property.
Diaz and his wife, Yolanda, live on a 200-acre ranch. They regularly apprehend immigrants trying to cross the property.

"There were supposed to be four," Diaz tells me, watching. "The rest probably bailed out."

Two of the agents haul the immigrant out of the boxcar and escort him to one of the 4x4s. A small, mustachioed man in a sweatshirt and jeans, he wears a defeated look as he is led to the car with his hands over his head.

He may not know it, but he's lucky. Had he been caught just miles away in another part of the Laredo sector, he would be going to jail instead of merely getting deported. Operation Streamline, a program that refers all illegal immigrants to the courts for prosecution, was recently expanded from the Yuma, Arizona, and Del Rio sectors and is soon expected to be implemented throughout the entire Laredo sector.

Recent news reports from the Texas border town describe local courts and jails filled to capacity with immigrants pleading guilty to illegal entry. For now, though, the new rules haven't affected Diaz's Cotulla station. It's the same rhythm as always—search, apprehend, process, then search some more.

On the way back to the station, we pass a man loading large rocks into a truck. Since Diaz has only been here since August, having spent 16 years stationed in nearby Hebbronville, several years in Freer and the past two in Puerto Rico, he's always on the lookout for an opportunity to meet locals. He pulls up alongside the man and calls out a warm greeting in Spanish.

The man looks about 70 and wears a baseball cap and work gloves. He introduces himself as Pablo Castillas. He recently returned to town after retiring from a job up north, he says, and he's collecting large rocks to landscape his new yard. They chat for a few minutes and then Diaz hands him his business card. "Call me if you see anything," he says.

Castillas gives him a vigorous nod. "There used to be a truck that would park here and pick up people on the tracks and take them to San Antonio," he says. "It was an old lady in her 80s and a young Mexican girl."

"So they never got caught, huh?" Diaz says.

"I guess not."

Diaz shakes his head. "Shame on us," he says. "They got away."

Back at the patrol station, Diaz gives me a tour of the area where detained immigrants are held. They call it "the bubble" because of the central command center separated from the holding cells by large glass windows. Two agents and one National Guardsman work radios and computers while on the other side of the glass two exhausted-looking men are being interviewed by agents. Behind them, several other immigrants gaze forlornly from their cells.

An agent points to the men being interviewed. "They were walking in the brush and an agent tracked them," he says. "They picked them up an hour ago."

One of the detainees agrees to talk to me. A smallish man with eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, he says he left Honduras 30 days ago. "I was going to Houston to make some money," he says in Spanish.

"Why? Why didn't you stay home?" Diaz asks, using the jocular tone he tends to take with immigrants, as if he's a soccer coach chiding them for a poorly executed play.

"My mother has AIDS, and she just had a stroke. Her medicines are expensive," the man says. He rode trains through most of Mexico and bused part of the way. At one point, he was robbed by Mexican police. They took 60 pesos—all the money he had. I ask how he got to this area from the border, some 70 miles. On foot, he replies.

"We were walking when we saw the agents," he says.

"Why didn't you run?" Diaz says.

The man shrugs. "Por miedo," he says. Fear.

I ask what he'll do now.

He's quiet for a moment, and I realize how stupid the question is, especially with the station chief standing by.

"I guess I'll go back," he finally says. "What else can I do?"

Jorge Diaz is no stranger to hardship. He, too, once longed for a future that lay out of reach, beyond a line drawn across the land. For years as a kid, he heard his parents talk about the United States. It sounded like a magical place, a place where problems disappeared and everyone was happy. Even in Mexico, their family was considered poor. The two parents and seven children lived in a two-room shack with a dirt floor in the village of Camargo, Tamaulipas, the state that borders Texas. Diaz's parents had second- and third-grade educations, and his mother picked crops while his father drove a tractor.

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