Patrolling South Texas for Illegal Immigrants
Jorge Diaz spent years working the fields of South Texas, an earnest immigrant kid picking onions or melons alongside his family. Every month or so, the Border Patrol would descend on the fields. The workers without green cards would drop what they were doing and run. But Diaz didn't have to worry. His mother would wipe her brow, reach into her shirt and take out a small plastic bag. Inside were the pieces of paper that allowed her and her Mexican-born brood to live and work on the north side of the border and on the right side of the law.
As Diaz stood there, a determined kid covered in sweat and grime, he would look up at the agents as they reviewed these miraculous pieces of folded paper. The men wore clean, pressed green uniforms. They stood straight and proud and spoke with confidence. They were polite. And, it occurred to Diaz, they probably got to spend lots of time in air conditioning. He wanted to be like them. And so, strange as it might seem, becoming a Border Patrol agent became his dream.
He managed to graduate from high school—a leap up the social ladder, since his parents had only second-grade educations—and at 27 achieved his goal of donning the Border Patrol patch and uniform. Now 48, he has spent 21 years trolling the border for illegal immigrants and was recently promoted to head of the Cotulla Border Patrol Station, some 70 miles north of Laredo.
Diaz is responsible for 6,000 square miles of land. Six thousand square miles that at any given moment is host to untold numbers of immigrants. They drive, hitch, walk—and in their most wretched moments, crawl—toward a future they desperately hope will not resemble their past.
Many are headed to Houston and Dallas, drawn by the cities' booming construction and service industries and by the areas' burgeoning immigrant communities. It's Diaz's job to stop them. No matter how much their pasts mirror his own. He may have been born in Mexico, but his loyalties are clear.
Each month, he and his agents apprehend on average between 350 and 375 immigrants trying to scoot through their patch of borderland. The agents catch them along the most common migrant thoroughfares—the train tracks and the trail under the power lines, the highway and the ranch roads that demarcate the land like lines on a chessboard. It's big country. From any given point, the soft browns and greens of the South Texas brush extend on all sides to meet the dome of blue sky at the horizon.
On a recent afternoon, Diaz inches along the ranch road in his Border Patrol 4x4, craning his neck out the window. He peers down at the soft dirt below and searches the patchwork grids left by tractors and trucks for the telltale signs of human shoes.
He is a thick, hulking man with broad shoulders and a face rounded out by prominent cheekbones. Most of the time he's serious, jaw set in the image of a stern Latino RoboCop. When he smiles, his whole face changes and dimples mark his cheeks. Right now, though, his brows are drawn together in concentration.
"After an hour, the footprints are mostly gone," he says, eyes probing the ground. "So if you still have a fresh print in the sand, it's probably good traffic."
No tracks yet. Of course, there are 6,000 square miles to scan. So as always, he'll keep looking.
On a bright December morning, Diaz speeds in his 4x4 across Interstate 35 on his way to the train tracks. Minutes before, his agents spotted a group of men riding in one of the train's boxcars, a common way for people to cover the broad swaths of South Texas after crossing the border illegally. As he turns off the pavement and onto a rutted dirt road that runs along the tracks, Diaz launches into one of his cheery endorsements of the Border Patrol. "I love going to work every day," he says as he swerves to avoid a pothole. "I'm highly motivated, and I want to motivate my guys—we're making a difference."
Seconds later, the train appears, chugging along the tracks toward him. As he picks up speed alongside thick mesquite, juniper and cactus, I notice two more Border Patrol 4x4s parked on the other side of the tracks. Diaz points to the oncoming train. "When they see the units, they jump off," he says. "You never know what you're going to find on these trains—could be a terrorist."
A terrorist? Has he ever apprehended one out here?
"No," he says. "But we're looking."
As the train pulls up, the car radio crackles. "I didn't get a look at that second car," says one agent. "There might be people on that one too. If they start dropping out one by one, I'll take the first one that drops."
"You guys got any bodies where you're at?" Diaz says into the handset.
"Affirmative, sir," comes the answer. "There's an open gondola—that's where the aliens are at."
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.
"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.
"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.
"Our house is like a trap," she says. "They don't know a border patrolman lives there. If they come, they're gonna get caught." Yolanda, whose parents were both born in the American Southwest, says Diaz rarely talks about the stresses or challenges of his work when he's home.
Manuel Sauceda, a Border Patrol intelligence agent and father of two who grew up in Laredo, says he learned to deal with emotionally charged experiences early on. "My supervisor told me to leave it at work—the arrests, the car rollovers, all that," he says. "It's not you putting people in those situations, it's them. They chose. You're here to take care of yourself and your family. Do your job, process it and leave it at work. That's how I've looked at it ever since."
While catching immigrants may at times be hard on the conscience, arresting coyotes and drug smugglers is not.
When Diaz leaves his large office and administrative duties for the field, he spends much of his time driving up and down I-35, eyes peeled for trucks packed with illegal immigrants or drug loads. "You can tell by how heavy the trucks are loaded, by how they bounce on the road," he says, scanning the highway before him while he drives. "The latest trend we're seeing is F450 and F550 Ford trucks. The smugglers want to blend in with the local population, and lots of the ranchers and hunters drive those." The trucks used to drive loads and smuggle immigrants are usually stolen, most often from Houston and Dallas.
The day before, Diaz's agents spotted a Ford truck that looked to be riding low. They followed it and ran the license plate, but before they could pull the truck over the driver accelerated, busted through the barbed-wire fence along the highway and careened into the brush. This is called a bailout, and it happens more often than you might think. Usually the drivers—migrants or drug smugglers or both—rumble through the tangled mesquite and cactus until the vehicle gets stuck and they can drive no farther. Then, they take off on foot. Other times, the driver leaps out of the speeding vehicle without even hitting the brakes, leaving the passengers to jump or else risk remaining in the unmanned car.
"I've seen a lot of fatalities," Diaz says. "They'd jump out and fall under the vehicle. Once, north of Highway 21, some people ran into the brush and others ran across the median. This 17-year-old girl got hit by an 18-wheeler." He shakes his head. "It was bad. The agent that took that one was new—he was pretty traumatized."
The truck Diaz's agents followed off the highway right before my visit didn't get far. The driver abandoned the vehicle and ran, but with help from Border Patrol helicopters, he and his co-pilot were soon spotted and arrested. It turned out six undocumented immigrants had been riding inside, sitting atop bundles of marijuana. The week before, agents in a neighboring county stopped an 18-wheeler loaded down with more than 5,000 pounds of pot. The street value was more than $4 million.
Diaz pulls up alongside an 18-wheeler stopped in the median. It's marked Dollar General. The man behind the wheel tells Diaz they're changing drivers.
"It's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys," Diaz says as he drives away. "But when they're driving loads, sometimes they get facial twitches, or they hold the steering wheel like this." He grips the wheel hard. "You look at the jugular and it's just pumping."
Compared with the United States, his native country is a place he associates with crime and danger. "We have to enforce the laws, because that's what makes this country great," he says. "If you want to go to Mexico, good for you, but I don't go over there. You have kids that wear uniforms and carry guns and call themselves police officers, but they're not. It's chaotic down there—people are always getting killed."
Indeed, one of his brothers recently sent him photographs of a brutal crime scene published in a Mexican newspaper. The images, from early December, showed a half-dozen men sprawled on the sidewalk outside a cafeteria, shot to death and covered with blood. A former mayor known for standing up to the Gulf cartel in the Mexican border town of Rio Bravo, across from Mercedes, Texas, had been gunned down along with five other men, including his bodyguards. Nearby Nuevo Laredo is perhaps the most dangerous town along the border, enveloped by the violence that has erupted between the warring Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. Many of the dozens of people killed there in the past year were tortured and decapitated. Recently, the drug violence has begun to spill over the border.
There was the incident in Hudspeth County, when heavily armed men dressed in Mexican military uniforms crossed the border into U.S. territory to protect drug runners who were being chased by Border Patrol agents. The supposed Mexican officers warded off the agents with .50-caliber rifles, and later, the Mexican government denied association with the gunmen and said they were working for a cartel.
Working for the Border Patrol has never been so dangerous. Agents were attacked 987 times along the border during the 12-month period that ended September 30, according to the agency, a 31 percent increase from the 752 attacks recorded the year before and the highest number since the Border Patrol began recording assaults in the late '90s. None of Diaz's agents has been attacked, but it's something against which he is constantly vigilant.
Shortly after passing the Dollar General truck, Diaz picks up Agent Sauceda and heads out to Highway 57, a road smugglers often use to circumvent the patrols on I-35. After about an hour of scanning the road for smugglers but mostly seeing hunters towing dead bucks or locals on their way to visit family, they pull into a gas station and curio shop just off the highway. It's the only building visible amid vast stretches of cabbage fields and open sky.
They're greeted at the door by the owner, a tall Anglo man with a paunch and a thin brown mustache. He has ranches on both sides of the border, he says, and he leases his land to hunters. The drug violence has spooked his clients and affected business. "The more heat they put on the border up here, the more B.S. goes on down there," he says, speaking in a twangy drawl. "I was coming across near Acuña the other day, and I saw just three Border Patrol agents. Anyone could take a load through there." He shakes his head. "They shoulda put in a border security system 20 years ago. Now, it's saturated."
Diaz and Sauceda nod sympathetically, and the man continues. "A few years ago, we were down by Acuña, butted up against a fence line, rattling, trying to take down a big buck, and all the sudden here comes some people down the bank with automatic weapons. I said, 'Hell, it's time to crawl outta here.' A few days later, there was a cartel shootout." His ranch homes have been broken into, he says, and three years ago, whoever broke in did $30,000 worth of damage.
He turns and points to the shelves behind him. They're cluttered with Virgen de Guadalupe statuettes, silver jewelry and cow hides. He points out a large statuette in the back that resembles a skeleton. "That's Santa Muerte," he says, referring to La Santisima Muerte, the grim reaper figure that some people beseech for love, luck and protection. "The drug dealers build shrines—I saw one out by Amstel Lake—and they put those up there to pray that they don't get caught."
On a recent afternoon, while searching for drug loads and unauthorized immigrants sneaking through the brush, Diaz stumbles across something else. He has pulled into the Exxon Mobil for tacos, and when he heads for the lunch counter, he notices a group of Mexican men sitting at a table. He strides over and addresses them in Spanish. "Who of you have immigration papers?"
The six men shake their heads.
"Nadie?" No one?
The heads shake again.
"We're on our way back from Tennessee," one man says. "We're going back home, to Oaxaca."
Diaz smiles and assumes his friendliest, most non-threatening demeanor. "So, you have trucks full of money, then?" he jokes.
The men smile and shake their heads no.
"So, how'd you cross?" Diaz asks.
One of the younger men, in his 20s, says they crossed near Laredo six months ago, went to Nashville to work construction and recently decided to go back to Mexico because there wasn't as much work as they expected.
"You crossed here and you didn't come say hi to me?" Diaz says. "Am I that scary? Am I that ugly?" This time, he gets a laugh from most of the guys. One, though, an older man with gray whiskers and a baseball cap emblazoned with an eagle and an American flag, doesn't look amused. He sits with his arms crossed tightly across his chest, eyeing Diaz suspiciously.
"We just need to take you to the station and process you," Diaz tells them. "We're not going to take money or property or anything like that. Then you can be on your way back home." The men will be fingerprinted and voluntarily deported, and if in the future they come back, they could be prosecuted.
Diaz takes out his handheld radio and calls for backup. He turns to me. "When I saw these guys—maybe it's training—but I knew they didn't have anything," he says. "I don't like these cases. We're supposed to be getting people who are coming in. But if they're illegal, they're illegal." Besides, like many of the people driving south this time of year before the holidays, they may be planning to come back to the United States in January. He addresses the group while he waits for his agents to arrive.
"Tell your friends and cousins that crossing is getting harder," he says. "You can go to jail now, and there are more agents all the time. Spread the word."
I ask if their friends and family in Mexico have heard about the recent crackdown.
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."
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.
The Ford turns out to be devoid of people and drugs. "They were probably aliens, then," says an agent named JJ. "Unless they took the bundles with them, and that's highly unlikely because it would weigh them down in the brush." Yet it's unusual for immigrants who have entered the country illegally to go to such lengths to avoid arrest. Most of the time, the guys who lead car chases through the brush are smugglers of some sort. Diaz guesses the men were scouts, paid to signal those transporting loads when the way is clear.
The chances of finding the men tonight look slim. Overhead, the sky is fading from glowing pink to dull, purplish blue. Diaz, somber and slightly frustrated, surveys two groups of agents that plan to comb the brush from opposite directions. "It's hard to follow sign here, with all the grass," he says. "But they'll meet in the middle. And if there's nothing, well, that's it."
Troy, the ranch hand, says he hasn't seen this type of thing before. Usually, immigrants walk through the ranch, sometimes asking for water or food. "I was at the gate one night and I heard, 'Amigo! Agua, por favor,'" he says. "It was two kids—couldn't have been more than 15. I gave them some water and chips." He looks out at the brush, the colors growing muted in the waning light.
"You gotta feel for them—it's 30 miles to the river," he says. "To walk 30 miles through this stuff for a better life? It's got to be bad."