texasmonthly.com: What drew you to Sarita, as opposed to another border-crossing hot zone?
Pamela Colloff: I’ve always wanted to write about Sarita and that particular part of South Texas because I was interested in writing a border story that wasn’t set on the border. I was fascinated by the fact that a place that was a nearly two-hour drive north of the Rio Grande still, because of the checkpoint, functioned almost as a border town. Years ago, I had looked into writing a story about Sarita and illegal immigration, but I wasn’t able to find the narrative. Then, in May, I received an e-mail from Melissa Webb, Donald Strubhart’s daughter. It was just a few sentences, and it began: “I have a story that I believe you may be interested in. It is regarding illegal immigrants coming across and dying on our ranch.” It didn’t say where the ranch was, but I called Melissa immediately, and from our first conversation, I knew that this was an important story that I wanted to do.
texasmonthly.com: You visited Sarita during the summer. What did you learn about border traffic there during the winter?
PC: Many illegal immigrants return home for Christmas, so there are large numbers of people who cross back into the U.S. in the late winter and spring. There isn’t a time of the year when people stop crossing. In the winter, people don’t die of heat exhaustion, but they still die of exposure, from snake bites, in train accidents, and so on.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on the story?
PC: I made four trips to South Texas from June through August.
texasmonthly.com: Does it make this story more important that so many of the immigrants who die crossing the border are barely adults?
PC: That was something that surprised me while reporting the story. Out of ignorance, I had never thought about the fact that children were crossing into this country illegally, too. While I worked on this story, I kept thinking about the fact that the people I was writing about—whether it was Strubhart, Cuellar, the Border Patrol agents, or the people who were coming north—were stranded between two realities: the availability of jobs in the U.S. for illegal immigrants, and the poverty of Mexico and Central America. It seemed to me that the children who crossed were the ones who were the most caught in the middle.
texasmonthly.com: Is it typical for Texans who live near the border to view the immigration issue as compassionately as Strubhart does?
PC: I would be afraid to make any generalizations about how Texans living on the border view the immigration issue, because it is unique to every person. But I do think that people who live on, or near, the border often have a more nuanced view of the immigration issue because it’s not an abstraction to them. Five years ago, I wrote a story about a rancher who lived in Quemado, which is right on the Rio Grande, outside of Eagle Pass. He was very angry about the number of people who were crossing his ranch every night. But he was able to separate the politics of illegal immigration (the lack of jobs in Mexico, the availability of jobs here for illegal immigrants) from the actual people who were crossing. He was compassionate to the people themselves. This was true, also, of the Border Patrol agents I spent time with on that story and on this one.
texasmonthly.com: If all the harshest critics of illegal immigration in Texas—and the rest of the U.S.—read your article or experienced this story first-hand, how would our nation’s attitude toward the subject change?
PC: If politicians could spend some time on the border, hopefully the conversation in Washington, D.C., about illegal immigration would become more substantive. Right now, there seems to be a disconnect between the political rhetoric (that we should shut down our borders by erecting walls and beefing up the Border Patrol) and the reality on the ground (that many jobs in the U.S. are filled by, and are available to, illegal immigrants). The Border Patrol does a very important job, but in my opinion, upping the number of agents on the border won’t stop illegal immigration by itself.
texasmonthly.com: Coyotes seem largely to blame for many immigrants’ deaths. If there was some way to halt the coyote business, how many lives could be saved?
PC: I don’t think you can stop human trafficking as long as there are jobs that are available in the U.S. for illegal immigrants. If there is poverty in Mexico and Central America, and there is work available here for the people who are willing to risk the journey, they will keep coming—and they’ll do whatever they need to do to get here. The Border Patrol can slow the influx of people coming over the border, but in my opinion, as long as there are jobs here for illegal immigrants, coyotes will always have plenty of business.
texasmonthly.com: You mention that one of your sources—the husband of the young woman who lost her legs in a train accident—spoke to you in Spanish. How did your Spanish-speaking skills factor into your reporting?
PC: I wish that my Spanish-speaking skills had factored into my reporting! Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish. While reporting this story I was dependent on the people I was interviewing for their translation help. This was frustrating, especially at the scene of the accident I described, since I worried that I was missing many important details. But everyone in the story—Strubhart, Cuellar, all the Border Patrol agents—speaks Spanish well, or fluently, and they were gracious about helping me. Victor Castillo, the Univision reporter who put me in touch with Alejandro Sedano Gutierrez, was kind enough to serve as our interpreter during our (lengthy) interview. I am very grateful to him for his help.
texasmonthly.com: The same man says, despite his wife’s brutal injury (not to mention the subsequent sky-high medical bills), “the hand of God is always there.” How can he and his wife maintain their faith after such senseless tragedy?
PC: I think that shows just how strong their faith is. I can’t speak for Alejandro, but I think he feels lucky to still have Deyanira with him, since she could have died that day.
texasmonthly.com: You kept any personal reflection out of your article, but seeing and hearing about the horrible circumstances you wrote about must have affected you. How did you react?
PC: The hardest part of reporting this story was going through the banker’s box in the Sarita courthouse that contained the files of illegal immigrants who had died walking around the checkpoint. Each story was heartbreaking, and each file had photos attached to them of the deceased person (or people) where they were found, in the condition they were discovered in. It was pretty jarring to look at all that material, and then drive back home to Austin, which is only three-and-a-half hours away but which has a very different reality. I was, of course, very affected by seeing the traffic accident I described in the story, and particularly by the woman who the Border Patrol agents I was with tried to help. I kept my own reactions out of the story, though, because I want readers to make up their own minds, and because I think the scenes speak powerfully enough for themselves.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned during this story?
PC: The most interesting material that didn’t make it into the story was not about illegal immigration—it was about Strubhart’s time in Vietnam. I asked him a lot of questions about the war when we drove around the ranch, really out of my own curiosity. He had seen a lot of difficult things, not only because he was a P.O.W., but because was with military intelligence. I told him—and I need to tell him again—that he really must write his memories down because they are important history that shouldn’t be forgotten.