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."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman

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