Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Hipolito Acosta
Published: April 10, 2013
Well, there were parallels back then with human smuggling and narcotics trafficking. There was some overlap between human smuggling and drug trafficking. There was a sharing of guides – a guide that smuggles in people usually wasn't gonna refuse to carry some dope – and there was a sharing of stash houses. But the cartel control wasn’t so pervasive back then. Human smuggling is now almost completely controlled by the drug traffickers, the cartels. Back then there was some separation. There's a lot of violence now associated with narcotics, and that has in turn carried over into human smuggling. Certainly, human smuggling was dangerous back then. But now, you see what happened last year, with the massacre of 70 or so Central and South Americans in Matamoros, people supposedly kidnapped by the cartels and massacred. I understand in southern Mexico, human smugglers don't move without paying off the cartels that control those areas as well. There's a lot more control, and a lot more violence. That's not to say there wasn’t violence back then. But it wasn't like it is now.
Some of the more poignant parts of your book deal with your emotional reaction to being smuggled alongside immigrants, particularly children. How did that affect you?
I grew up on the border, so I had a lot of interaction with people that came from Mexico. But then to be an officer for U.S. Immigration, and to be in the back of a U-Haul, or to be in a small hotel room in Ciudad Juárez where people are talking about their dreams, their aspirations – you might recall this kid I wrote about in Ciudad Juárez that said when he got to the United States he was gonna join the U.S. military because he would be wiling to give up his life for what he saw in the United States. That's real strong talk. Then to see a six-year-old bouncing around with you in the back of a U-Haul talking about being able to go to school, learn English, that kind of stuff, it's heavy. Maybe it's my nature, but when you see something like that, it hits you. But at the same time, I was an agent. I knew that at the end of the day, when we got up to Chicago, I was gonna have to arrest them.
There's a lot of mixed emotions there. There was never any question of what my responsibility was as an agent. But at the same time, I had strong feelings for those people.
In retrospect, is there any sort of emotional conflict now that you don't shoulder that responsibility as an agent?
Well, I took the oath, I knew what my responsibilities were. I don't get to decide which laws to enforce, or get to change them. But those were people seeking a better way of life, for the most part. There were definitely times when I arrested individuals and I wished them well. I knew they were merely seeking a better way of life.
What needs to be done to fix the immigration system?
Well, that would take us at least two beers to get through. But, honestly, and I'm pretty upfront about this, when people talk about a broken immigration system, I get tired of the little clichés that are used. Like, saying we won't do anything until the border is secure. Those are catch-all phrases that, in my view, just avoid really looking at the problem. We increased our border security immensely. When I came in, we had 1,800 agents throughout the country. Now we have more than 20,000. People are still coming in because they can get hired by businesses [here]. When we talk about a broken immigration system, what we've had is broken leadership. We have let this problem happen by neglecting the issue. We increased border security, but no interior enforcement to enforce the law for employers to actually be held accountable to. Corporations throughout the U.S. hired countless undocumented people and got away with it. We've gone from the early 2000s, where we had 2 or 3 million undocumented immigrants living here, where we've increased border security and yet we have anywhere from 10 to 15 million undocumented immigrants. How can we say we're not going to take some type of action until we secure the border? We added thousands of agents in the meantime.
So, what do we do now? The bottom line is we have to be realistic. We're not gonna deport 10, 12 million people. We need to know who's here, and come up with a reasonable solution to get them out of the shadows. The only practical solution is going to be coming up with some way to identify the folks, getting them in a situation where they can obtain documents to work, and hopefully prevent us from having the same situation 10, 20 years down the road.
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