H remembers the moment perfectly. It was August 1995, he was 35 years old, and he’d just crossed the border into Texas. Then, he saw it: La Migra pulling up at the top of a nearby hill. There were two white trucks, he recalls. He could hear their engines roaring, see the broiling South Texas sun bouncing off their windows, plumes of dust swirling in their wake. He bolted from the road as fast as he could, but it was too late. An absurdly large backpack, stuffed with enough clothing and dried food for a weeklong camping trip, made him easy to spot—a beginner’s mistake, he now knows.
The trucks screeched to a halt on the road behind him. The doors opened and the barking began. In the rush, H lost his footing and tumbled down a steep embankment, back toward the Rio Grande, smashing his knee and landing in a thorny bush. He wanted to curse this country, to scream at the top of his lungs, to give up before he’d even begun, but he couldn’t. He had to be silent. A pair of German Shepherds was snarling at him from a few feet away.
It was then that a group of would-be border crossers, frightened by the approaching vehicles, fanned out from a thicket of bushes farther down the river, on the Mexican side. They were running, H remembers. The dogs were called off; the trucks peeled away. Once more, H, homesick and terrified, was free.
At the time, H had two young children and a wife in Guadalajara. “We were broke, fighting every day for food,” he says. “Everyone was suffering, and I knew I had to leave as soon as possible.”
He arrived at a cousin’s house in Austin a few days later, successfully completing the first of what would become, by his own count, 40 attempts to cross the border over the next 18 years. His success rate currently stands at around 50 percent.
Now, almost two decades after his first crossing, he is a wiry 53-year-old with a well-groomed mustache, a head of greying hair, and a striking face lined by years of physical labor. He sits across from me over beers in a Houston bar, his shirt stained with sweat and scraps of dried paint.
The plan was to stay just a year, he says, until his family could get back on its feet, but instead he has continued to shuttle back and forth to Houston, never returning to Mexico for long. In all that time his wife and children have never lived here, although they’ve certainly been the beneficiaries of H’s lucrative and—it must be said—illegal work status. Today his children are grown. His daughter works for Honda in Guanajuato and speaks Japanese thanks to an expensive college education that allowed her to study abroad. His son is studying cinematography and French in Guanajuato. H has paid for all of it.
“For a long time my kids hated me,” he says. “They didn’t know why I left them, but now they thank me. They understand why I had to leave to be a better father.”
For much of the last decade, H, like an estimated 400,000 other undocumented immigrants, has lived in Houston, which he says is regarded by the community as the Texas city with the most tolerant attitude toward its undocumented population, and the best place to find work. After stints in Austin and Dallas, living with distant American relatives or in rundown apartment complexes, he says he would never live anywhere else.
“The police here are comfortable with illegal persons,” he says. “They don’t harass us. They don’t ask about people’s status. Many of them even speak Spanish.”
H is a successful contractor and oversees a team of 10 men (mostly from Guatemala and Mexico). His team does everything from renovations to home construction and most of their work comes from referrals. He is busy seven days a week, working around 10 hours a day, motivated by an unwavering fear of unemployment, a vestige of his past life in Mexico. He owns a truck that he drives using a fake driver’s license from Mexico, and he’s in the process of buying a house on the south side of town directly from an owner whom he trusts, bypassing a bank. But H’s most prized possession in the US is a motorcycle.
“Do you want to know what kind?” he asks. “It’s a Harley Davidson. In Mexico it was my dream to own a Harley. Now I do.”
A taxpayer who’s contributed to both Obama presidential campaigns, H says he longs to be part of “the system.” He’s hired a lawyer and applied for citizenship, but his case languishes in court. “What I am trying to do is be honest with this country,” he says. “I respect this country. I love this country. I want to feel like I deserve to be here. I am making money here, why wouldn’t I pay taxes here?”
In ever-expanding Houston, the money he’s making is good. He earns around $1,500 to $2,000 a week, he says, $300 of which he sends back home to his ex-wife (they divorced in 2001) and his kids—whether they’re in Mexico or abroad—just as he’s done for years. He feels successful in Texas, he says. “In Mexico, I was nothing. I am smart, and I deserve to have a life in Mexico. But to get a life in Mexico, it is not enough to be bright. You have to be dishonest.”
H is eager for immigration reform— if it doesn’t arrive, he says, his illegal border crossings will continue. He’d like to visit his family again soon; it would be the first time since 2009. But once there he’ll have to find a way back into Texas, and do so as an older, less agile man with more to lose than ever before.
His methods of entry are many. He has stowed away inside train engines for days at a time, been picked up by friends on ranches, and, during his last two trips in 2009 and 2007, hiked across the South Texas brush country with the help of Google Earth. Show him a map, and he points out routes around border patrol stations, the spot where a friendly rancher offered him a Sprite, the location of an old well that saved his life.
H approaches his border crossings with the focus of a master tactician. “Anyone can do it,” he is fond of saying. One thing, though, don’t rely on anyone else. “Most people go blind,” he says. “They just follow the coyote. I don’t understand how you can put your life in another person’s hands. You have to plan, be smart.” He starts training weeks before a crossing, running in the morning and enduring long walks to build stamina, then finds just the right spot in the rugged backcountry between Piedras Negras and Nuevo Laredo, ideally in the winter, when La Migra is holed up in their vehicles. The goal is to make it beyond Cotulla, which is about 70 miles from the border and home to the final border patrol checkpoint along Interstate 35. He walks 12 to 15 miles a day, for three to six days, his only tools a handheld GPS unit, a liter of water, and a pair of K-Swiss walking shoes ideal for long hauls.
Despite his familiarity with the route, on each trip he encounters the unexpected. He has been shot at by ranchers, nearly died from dehydration, and been forced to kill armadillos for food, baking them in earthen ovens dug by hand (they taste like rabbit, he says). As we finish our beer, he talks confidently about his ability to cross the border, admitting too that he’s always just a misstep from his own demise.
“It’s easy to die,” he says, remembering the time he left his water at a rest stop and was forced to suck on cacti to survive. “Sometimes it doesn’t hurt. You’re tired and sleepy and maybe confused, so you fall to sleep and you never wake up.” Hence the bodies, curled up in the sand, rotting in the hot sun, that H frequently encounters along the way. I ask him what he’ll do if he’s ever caught. He shrugs his shoulders—he will merely try again. And again. His desire to prosper outweighs the risk, as it does for so many others.
“Who can stop immigration?” he says, taking a final gulp of his Shiner Bock. “Nobody can stop this. I have the natural right to feed my family, and I will die to keep doing it.”