By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"We had a few cows, some chickens," Diaz remembers. "It was a hard life. You feel boxed in."
When he was 9, they moved to Monterrey because his father found work at a cookie factory there. As the oldest brother, Diaz helped out by shining shoes outside the factory after school. But there still wasn't enough money. They ate mostly tortillas with salt, and sometimes, when they could splurge, they added beans.
Diaz's mother finally decided to go to Texas, where her grandfather lived. A U.S. citizen born in Brownsville, he would petition for her green card, and she would work in the fields and save money until she could in turn petition to bring her family across the border. Around a year later, the paperwork was in order. Diaz walked with his father and siblings across the bridge to Roma, Texas. Eliseo Jr., one of Diaz's younger brothers, remembers their mother meeting them with a smile and buying them hot dogs. On that side of the bridge, everything seemed cleaner, bigger and brighter—full of promise.
Nothing came easy, but there was always work, and it paid better than in Mexico. Diaz's father found a job driving a tractor near Edinburg at a ranch owned by former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Diaz recalls sitting by the gate with his brothers and watching the senator and his friends pull up in a long white Cadillac. "They'd open the doors and hand us coins," he says.
The family had trouble making ends meet with their father's meager ranch salary, so they all became migrant workers. Before school let out in the spring, they would pack up, pile into their 1963 Chevy station wagon and drive to West Texas, the Panhandle or even Kansas. They would work in fields of cotton, cucumber and sugar beets, aiming to make as much money as they could before fall came around.
After graduating from high school, working some odd jobs, serving two years in the Army and becoming a U.S. citizen, Diaz applied to the Border Patrol. He did handstands and somersaults through the house when he received the letter of acceptance. "It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he says. At 27, he became an agent, and in the years afterward, two of his younger brothers would follow in his footsteps.
I ask Diaz how he feels about stopping immigrants from gaining access to the same opportunities he has enjoyed since he came here. "There are legal and illegal ways to do things," he says. I point out that most of the people deported now don't have relatives who can petition for them. And if they do, it could take up to a decade for the paperwork to go through. He nods and is silent for a long moment. "I guess it's just chance," he says. "It's a hard question."
Some 50 percent of Border Patrol agents are Hispanic, and many of them are from immigrant families. In 2006, some told The New York Times that their background added to the challenge of their jobs. Their families and communities considered them traitors to their heritage, they said, and immigrants often played on their ethnicity for mercy.
"Some of these people think that because you're Hispanic you're gonna let them go," Diaz tells me. "They say, 'Dejenos ir. Let us go. Don't be mean.' But it doesn't work like that. I respect this agency, and I wouldn't betray this badge. I dreamed of having it all my life."
His family, he and his brothers say, have always been proud of their government service. Yet later, as we're driving down I-35, he wonders. "I have cousins in Monterrey and Nuevo Leon," he says, eyes on the road. "Does it bother them that I'm a Border Patrol agent? I don't know. If it does, they never say anything."
Even without such questions, nabbing people desperate to reach their dreams can be difficult. He has investigated the deaths of immigrants who were killed leaping from freight trains or burned alive next to camp fires. He routinely comes across people who are weak or ill from hunger, thirst or heat exhaustion, and he once apprehended a family with small children clinging to teddy bears. "You feel for them," he says. "They go through a lot. I try to throw a little humor in there, 'cause we're the last people they want to see."
Diaz, his wife and three children live on a 200-acre ranch in a farm-style house they built themselves. At least once a month, immigrants pass through the property, walking by the family's cows and horses and prompting the dogs to bark. "At first, I felt really bad," Diaz's wife, Yolanda, says. "But my husband told me, 'You don't know what kind of people they are—if they need water, point them to the water faucet outside.'" Since she spends long hours at the ranch alone, he also taught her to shoot a .22. She has called the Border Patrol station more than once to alert them to immigrants' presence on their property.