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.

The men nod. "They see it on cable," says one man in his 30s. "Some still cross out of necessity, but some say, no, it's not worth it."

In fact, it does appear that fewer immigrants are attempting to cross the border. A Mexican government survey shows that the number of people "looking for a job in another country or preparing to cross the border" dropped by nearly a third in the past two years, from 107,500 in the third quarter of 2005 to just 76,000 in the same period last year. The decrease is likely caused by the slowing U.S. economy and the nationwide crackdown by the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and various cities and towns, as well as the hiring and training of an additional 6,000 Border Patrol agents under a presidential initiative set to finish at the end of 2008.

Soon, more agents arrive at the Exxon to escort the Mexican men and their heavily loaded trucks to the Laredo Border Patrol station. "Then they'll follow them back to the border with Mexico," Diaz says. "Now, if one comes back with a warrant, it'll be a different story. Since 9/11 we have to make sure we document everyone. If they're not already in the system, they will be."

Diaz checks immigrants' documents on Interstate 35 north of Laredo.
Diaz checks immigrants' documents on Interstate 35 north of Laredo.
Jorge Diaz, a naturalized citizen from a family of migrant farm workers, checks trains north of Laredo for illegal immigrants. He was born in Mexico, but his loyalties to the United States are clear.
Jorge Diaz, a naturalized citizen from a family of migrant farm workers, checks trains north of Laredo for illegal immigrants. He was born in Mexico, but his loyalties to the United States are clear.

Once the agents have led the men out, we sit down to eat our tacos. As he takes a bite, Diaz gazes out the window to where the men are pulling out of the parking lot, followed by his agents. He looks pensive. "Those guys were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says, then pauses. "If you were already here, would you leave, knowing how hard it is to come back? Some people stay and get their citizenship, go to college, become attorneys—there are a lot of success stories. It's a hard decision."

"Would you go back to Mexico?" I ask.

He thinks for a long moment. "No," he finally says. "I don't think I would." He polishes off his taco and balls up the wrapper. "I ain't lying to these guys," he says. "It's going to get harder. We're getting more agents, more technology. We're gonna be able to detect, able to deter."

The next afternoon, after a few slow hours, a call comes over the radio. "I got a bailout—an F250 truck went through the fence," the voice says. Diaz grabs his keys and turns to me. "Let's go. Air support will be there in 20 minutes."

We hop into the 4x4. Diaz flips on the flashing lights and does 100 mph toward Highway 44. With at least a half-dozen agents on the chase, the radio traffic is constant. "He turned back around, he's northbound," one voice says. "There are two young male suspects inside."

"I lost the dust trail," someone else says.

Diaz pulls onto Highway 44, and after a few minutes he spots the place where the truck busted through the ranch fence. There's a 6-foot gap in the wire. We pull up alongside the hole, near where a ruddy-faced Anglo man in a baseball cap and jeans is examining the damage. He introduces himself as Troy, one of the ranch workers. "I'm gonna call my hunters and tell them to get back to the house and stay there," he says.

"Yeah, 'cause they could be armed," Diaz tells him. A second ranch worker appears out of the brush, a middle-aged man with a long, gray beard. He says he was working near a dirt road when the Ford thundered past him, tearing through clumps of mesquite and cactus.

The ranch is a small one compared to the surrounding properties, but 4,800 acres of brush is easily enough to hide the truck and the men inside. And dark will fall in less than an hour. Diaz, looking up at the sky every few seconds in search of the plane, calls for more backup. Two more units soon arrive, and then we're off, roaring through the ranch in a caravan. The plane circles overhead, searching from above.

After a turn where the dirt road narrows, Diaz spots a cluster of flattened nopal cactus. "This is where he went through," he says. He turns the wheel, guns the engine and plows into the brush. We bounce along roughly for a moment and then lodge, stuck, in a thick tangle of mesquite that rises at least 2 feet over the grill of the 4x4. "Nope," he says. "Not gonna work." He throws the vehicle into reverse and soon we're back on the road and then easing into a clearing where several 4x4s and a canine unit gather.

The plane has spotted the truck in a nearby thicket. It appears to have been abandoned. Two agents start into the brush with M-4 rifles, followed by another agent leading a dog. The truck is in bad shape. The front left corner is caved in, the headlights cracked, and twigs and leaves protrude from every crevice. On the back cab window are Baylor and "Don't Mess With Texas" bumper stickers, and in the truck bed a black ski mask and a bottle of lotion.

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