A Sister’s experiences from 1980’s Salafi Movement3 04 2007
A sister wrote this “prequel” and emailed it to me. Masha Allah, my original series on the 1990s Salafi movement made it to all corners of the globe and insha Allah will spark some much needed change. However, the sister basically gives a summary of her experiences with the beginnings of the movement in the 1980s:
This isn’t going to be very eloquent because truth to tell, I am saddened and sickened by the whole subject of salafism/wahabbism. I came across Brother Umar Lee’s blog a week or so ago and have been hanging out there ever since. Trying to find the logic in many comments, and when I can’t, trying to point it out. I should have learned from the past. In truth, it can’t be done.
I read Br. Umar’s discourse on “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Salafi Dawah’ in the US”. I think he was spot on in his assessments. Br. Umar began with the 1990’s, because he’s too young to know what US Islamic life was like back in the 80’s, pre-salafism as a defined group with a name. But there were groups of brothers exactly like many salafis today, who would help to create, and/or go on to embrace the movement and call it by the name by which it is known today.
This isn’t a pretty picture, but it is the truth. And in the nearly 25 years since I said my shahada, I am grief-stricken that not much has changed.
When I became acquainted with Islam, I was guided to one of the few masjids in town. It was, I guess you could say, the largest congregation and the most ethnically diverse. It was also located in the heart of the universities area, and attracted a variety of Muslims, both immigrant and indigenous, born Muslim and converted, Arab, Asian, African, European and “American”—in those days primarily “African” American.
The long and short of it is this: This particular masjid was usually only occupied at prayer time, except for a group of young American, convert men who always seemed to be there. Other members of the congregation were either students or employees, or both. Not this particular group. They were neither. I would come to know most of them as I studied Islam before I said my shahada. And sadly I would come to learn what a blight they were on the Islamic community. They were the source of most of the fitnah and destruction of brotherhood/sisterhood among us.
I would first like to say that when one has too much time on his hands, Shaytan uses him as a plaything. Under the guise of “Islamic education”, this group lounged around the masjid day in and day out. There wore the pre-salafia dress, favoring long white jalabiyahs and turbans instead of the “highwaters” and kufis preferred nowadays. They went by the name of the Islamic Propagation League. It was their mission to bring Islam to the masses in my city, and correct the aqeedah of those already Muslim. They went out of their way to catch those inquiring about Islam—or new shahadas—hoping to convert them to their own particular brand of Islam. I guess this was one reason for staying in the masjid all day. If anyone came or called asking about Islam, these brothers were usually the first to pounce on them. They provided “dawah” on Islam, emphasizing rejection of all things western as tools of the devil.
They placed great emphasis on how one was to dress, as western-style clothing was to be abandoned in favor of long robes for the men and full hijab, including niqaab, which they pushed as fard, for the women. There was precious little talk of tawheed, the pillars of Islam, etc. The emphasis was on outward appearances, even down to rejecting your birth name and choosing an Arabic one.
They were my second encounter with Muslims. My first was a man I had met at a party at the university, a Nigerian student who patiently answered all my questions about Islam once I discovered he was a Muslim. My only “knowledge” of Islam in those days what that Allah was an idol in the desert and women were oppressed. Alhamdulilah he set me straight, and guided me to the location of the masjid, and providing me with a number to someone eager to help me whom he described as “part Arab, part European”. But on my first visit I encountered the Islamic Propagation League, of which this Arab/European kid was a part, and very nearly left Islam before I embraced it.
I’m not sure what the token white guy’s qualifications were to have been known around the masjid as someone schooled enough to give dawah. I think he just seemed a bit more acceptable as he was white and a fluent English and Arabic speaker.
It came to be known that white converts—and there were many women especially—were a prized commodity to those slackers who lay in the masjid all day. They tried to snag us at all costs. Somehow they believed the addition of a white feather in their caps would give their group legitimacy—something it was sorely lacking. They often complained that the Arab brothers “stole the white women” away. I don’t know about that, but after listening to dawah lessons from both sides, with the exception of one lecture, I was much more impressed with the Arabs. Why? Because they concentrated on those concepts I mentioned above…tawheed, the five pillars, and cardinal beliefs. They weren’t about damning the West and telling me I needed to get myself into mandatory niqaab and start calling myself Aisha or something.
My first Islamic outfits were sewn by me, long, loose flowing robes and the veils included niqaab. I thought I was doing the right thing. It wasn’t until I met other members of the mosque that I learned niqaab was optional. I thought it was pretty and rather exotic-looking, but I was relieved because my family wasn’t having any part of my conversion to Islam, especially the clothes. So when I left the house on the way to the masjid, in jeans and a t-shirt, changing into Islamic clothing on the way, I was at least relieved to know that showing my face wasn’t a sin.
During my studies, I was also made privy to the kind of life-style these pre-salafis were leading. They were all, with the exception of one, married to black women and on the prowl for a second or third wife—preferably a white one. Their families lived on welfare because it was “haram to work for the kuffar”. The kuffar would not allow you to wear a turban and jalabayih to work, so you couldn’t work for them, as “Islamic” clothing for men was wajib. It was not haram however to take charity from the kuffar. So these families existed on full welfare, which back in those days—before Clinton’s welfare reform—was a bundle. You could very easily raise a family on cash allotments—which by the way increased with the birth of each new child, food stamps—again increased with each new birth, medical care, WIC and free housing or ridiculously low monthly payments via a section 8 housing allowance. Most of these brothers lived better than others who had jibs for a living. They weren’t getting all that help, and struggled to make ends meet.
It was suggested to me that I might like to become the wife of one of these fine brothers. I politely declined, not just because I was uninterested in living on welfare, but because I couldn’t get with the polygamy aspect, being that not only was it illegal, but I would have to lie and pretend I wasn’t married to my husband. This is how the welfare department in our city came to call the Muslim women on the welfare role “the Holy Whores” - because they were often dressed in all black and niqaab and having children (as far as the state was concerned) out of wedlock. The second and subsequent wives could not be legally married to their spouse, and the government didn’t give a damn about or recognize a so-called Islamic marriage. And so the “Holy Whores” were born and I wasn’t eager to join their ranks.
My polite refusal was met with scorn. I was refusing a life with a decent Muslim man just because I thought myself above welfare and being known as a “whore”. Well, truth to tell, I was. I think there’s no shame in that.
To make a long story short, I accepted Islam during a Friday evening halaqa for the brothers at the masjid. My pre-salafi acquaintances were also in attendance. As was my future husband—a moderate Arab. Once my future husband asked about marrying me, we were sort of doomed. The American slackers had lost another white woman to an Arab man—something that apparently happened all too often. I guess my marriage to him was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because from then on, that group had it in for us.
My husband and I became very active in the masjid and in dawah. I was affiliating myself more with the Arab sector than I was the African-American group—mainly because I saw a better Islam and sensible work/study ethic from the Arabs. Because I was white, it often fell to me to meet other white women who were interested in Islam. I would share my own experiences with them while my husband shared the nuts and bolts of Islamic teachings.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of what happened to us - because that would jeopardize my anonymity - but we were put-down, taunted, accused of heinous things at every turn from a small band of these lazy devils masquerading as righteous Muslims. No matter that the greater Islamic community stood behind us—these pre-salafis were relentless. They would not let up on us in their quest to make our lives a living hell. After one particularly horrible incident, we decided to leave the city. We couldn’t take the pressure any longer.
But I kept in touch with many from my first community, including a few African-American sisters who knew this group, but were not a part of it. Upon hearing news from home, I was always so glad we had left. It was a constant string of gossip coming my way—this one had taken a third wife and divorced the other two. That one had caused a fight in the masjid between Arabs and blacks and the police had to be called. Another family had been set up in what would eventually morph into a rape charge against a very decent Muslim man and his family who had given shelter to a homeless ex-prostitute sent in as a decoy pretending to be interested in Islam. The list of atrocities committed by these pre-salafis was endless.
The funny thing is, in this town there was a totally African-American masjid, but the imam there would have none of their pre-salafi antics or dawah. He had forbidden them the opportunity to take up residence in his masjid. He was a decent, working class man who cared very well for his family. About 20 years later, upon his death, the masjid was taken over by salafis. What was once one of the oldest and most revered African-American masjids in the country is now a joke.
Over the years, even 20 years later—as self admitted followers of the salafi dawah, some members of the original group, were still making problems. Their wives still gossiping about people who had lived there ages ago, and trying to break up marriages and families of 20 years duration. Good deeds, if done by the persons still hated by the salafis, were turned into very near crimes against Islam. It continues to this day.
What happened to the original group? Basically they traded in their jalabiyahs and white turbans for highwaters and kufis. Their beards are down to waists, they reek of jasmine oil and henna, and their women dress like the beloved “black crows” of the Sunnah. But their hearts seem to be equally black. Most - if not all - have long since left that city, and formed or joined some infamous large salafi communities on the East Coast. Many got free trips to study Islam abroad and came back throwing around a few Arabic words in fus-hah and calling themselves “sheikhs”. Their second generation children are leaving the deen and are losing their own children to the dunya. They want no part of this extremist cult.
To this day you will find salafis gathered in person or on the internet, still discussing trivia to the point of insanity…Like the ruling regarding a particular sheikh who made a mistake in prayer, or the ruling on a particular community member who committed a sin. Hours and hours, days, weeks, months, volumes written on one single error—how to deal with it, discuss it, benefit from it, distance from it, ostracize the offender, etc, etc, etc.
Is this the Islam I envisioned when I took my shahada? No, and Alhamdulilah by the grace of Allah I never got sucked into it.
So the rise and fall of the salafi movement in the USA is a reality. It’s probably much worse actually then Brother Umar has indicated. There is a hadith of the Prophet (saw) that says…What starts on wrong is wrong. The beginning of the salafi movement in theUSA started with groups of men who were not willing to do their Islamic duties to Allah, themselves or their families, preferring instead to laze around the masjid in the name of “knowledge”. From my viewpoint, none of that has changed. The salafi dawah started on wrong, and will remain so. Unlike Islam—no sects, no labels, no bull—which will flourish and one day glorify hard-working, true believing Muslims, everywhere.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
A Sister’s experiences from 1980’s Salafi Movement3 04 2007
Patrolling South Texas for Illegal Immigrants
Border Patrolman Jorge Diaz left Mexico at 12. For 20 years, he's trolled the South Texas brush for illegal compatriots.
By Megan Feldman Published: January 24, 2008
Diaz checks immigrants' documents on Interstate 35 north of Laredo.
Jorge Diaz, a naturalized citizen from a family of migrant farm workers, checks trains north of Laredo for illegal immigrants. He was born in Mexico, but his loyalties to the United States are clear.
The recent crackdown at the border includes 6,000 new Border Patrol agents by the end of the year, as well as Operation Streamline, which in some areas sends immigrants to jail for entering the country illegally.
Diaz and his wife, Yolanda, live on a 200-acre ranch. They regularly apprehend immigrants trying to cross the property.
Subject(s): Border Patrol, drug smugglers, illegal immigrants, South Texas
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."
I am elated that Mr. Diaz was able to achieve his goal of becoming a Border Patrol Agent. However, the continual hiring of agents with a Hispanic background is highly suspicious. It seems that the plan for continuing the assimilation of anything remotely non-American into "Sir, yes sir" is working, as is the plan to continue hatred and racism within our own communities. Humans being referred to as "aliens" or even "terrorists" is a clear indication of the amount of fear that has been injected into the American pie. Do your jobs sirs, and beware of the alien. They just might be cutting your grass.
Comment by Xolótl Zarazúa — January 24, 2008 @ 02:26AM
I, too, share my happiness that Mr. Diaz achieved his goal; he is truly an example of a legal immigrant’s success story, something that occurs all too seldom. However, the previous commenter’s own words underscore his or her ignorance. Hiring agents with a Hispanic background makes great logistical sense. They require little or no training in Spanish or other facts pertinent to assignment along the Mexican border, saving taxpayers untold amounts of money. To the next point, assimilating “anything remotely non-American,” I should think, would be a worthy goal for anyone actually living in America. Fortunately, America allows its citizens and other legal (emphasis added) residents to retain parts of their culture that do not contradict the laws or beliefs of the majority of this country. Therefore, anything else that is un-American that does not fit the above criteria should, indeed, be changed, and as rapidly as possible, if you wish to continue living here. As far as the fact that humans are referred to as “aliens” is concerned, from a legal standpoint, what better word would describe border crossers? It’s my understanding that the word “alien” is, in one of its definitions, synonymous with “foreigner” (i.e. someone not from the country in which you live). This is an apt description in my opinion. That the word has a more pejorative connotation to it than originally intended is not relevant. I do, however, agree with the previous poster when he says that referring to humans as “terrorists” is an indicator of fear “that has been injected into the American pie.” It most certainly has been, and deservedly so. It is an undisputed fact that terrorists do cross at the U.S.-Mexican border quite regularly, so, again, this description is quite appropriate. And, if I may reiterate the previous poster, do beware of the alien. He may be mowing your lawn, and it is your duty as a law-abiding citizen to report him if he is illegal, so that others may have the chance to enter this country in a way that is respectful to the laws of this nation, as Mr. Diaz's family did.
Comment by David — January 25, 2008 @ 03:13PM
well said David.
Comment by Chris — January 30, 2008 @ 11:36AM
Well spoken David! The system and laws we have in place are a large part of why this country is great! If we start neglecting them, or bending them we will turn into Mexico. Where will we all flee then... to Canada? lol. It shocks me how many people speak so highly of Mexico and defend it so adimantly, yet live here! If it is so great why do you live in the U.S.? Go back! When my great grandfather came to the states from Germany (legally) it was simply a given that they would have to adopt to American culture... they were moving to AMERICA!!!! They didn't even leave Germany until they had learned English. My great grandfather was a blacksmith and when he opened shop in the states, no one could say our last name correctly... so he changed the spelling to be easier for Americans to pronounce! He didn't scream and cry and whine, he simply adhered to the American way... which was why he left Germany in the first place! I don't understand why these illegals come here and expect everything to be the same as it is in Mexico. It's like they think of coming here as a promotion instead of moving to a foreign country!
Comment by Ed — February 13, 2008 @ 11:22AM
Very well written. Truly a sad issue with many different views. If everyone read this article or another like it, they would not be so quick to express their opinions wither it is for deportation or citizenship. There really is no clear way to handle a citation like this. As Troy the handyman said to go through all that, the life they left behind must have been bad. I cannot imagine such a life a feel close to tears thinking that there are people with these situations and worse out there. Yet, I feel guilty because my tears mean nothing and it's just another circumstance of life. I just pray that in their next lives, the creator will be more favorable in their lives.
Comment by Loyola — April 9, 2008 @ 12:12AM
Cuban Detour to Texas
Cubans reroute to Mexico before heading north to the U.S.
By Russell Cobb and Paul Knight Published: January 10, 2008
Damian Jimenez left Cuba on a homemade raft in 1994, He now works at Catholic Charities in Houston, helping newly arrived Cubans settle in the city.
Rey Rodriguez (right) moved to Houston from the Texas border at the urging of his friend Silvino (left). The men live with another Cuban in a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston.
Maria Sanchez (left), with her Cuban friend Ernesto, has developed a feud with the nuns at La Posada.
La Posada is one of the few shelters along the Texas border where Cubans are staying.
Fingerprinting is one of the last steps before a Cuban is released into the United States.
Subject(s): Mexico, Cuban immigrants, border
Enveloped by darkness, a tractor rumbles down the hills that surround Cuba's western coast. The tractor pulls a cart loaded with a makeshift boat constructed from aluminum tubing and an old car motor.
Fourteen Cubans cram into the craft, destined for a twisting river that leads to the Yucatán Channel. To Harry Reinier, who had waited with the others in a safe house for weeks, the boat feels like a kitchen sink. Tonight, they make their escape from Cuba.
A motorcycle races ahead of the tractor, its driver armed with a two-way radio to sound alarm if the river launch is guarded. The shoreline is clear, and two men shove the boat away from the riverbank. The engine—a leftover from a 1950s-era American car—howls to a start and the boat shudders from the shallows to deeper water.
Reinier doesn't know what to expect on the open sea. He has never set foot on a boat before this moment. Food and water are scarce, with a backpack full of canned food and two jugs of water for each person. He only knows that their goal is the east coast of Mexico—a trip he is told will take four days. Reinier has little money, few resources and no guarantee the boat will ever reach Mexico.
But the risk is well worth a chance at the reward—legal residency in the United States. In Havana, Reinier heard that any Cuban who makes it to the Texas border is processed into the country without much hassle.
The boat sputters toward Mexico for two days before the motor dies. For more than a week, the boat drifts on the open sea. Food and water soon run out. The group survives on raw fish and rainwater.
After suffering dehydration, sunburn and exhaustion, after battling sleep-deprived, crazed Cubans on his boat, after five months in a Mexican prison and after marathon bus rides to Mexico City and Matamoros, Reinier crosses the Texas border. Today, he lives about 30 miles north of Brownsville. He is a legal resident of the United States, drawing a little less than $500 a month of government money.
Reinier is part of a growing number of Cubans abandoning the traditional Cuban escape route—the Florida Straits—and entering the United States through Texas. When the U.S. Coast Guard started turning back Cubans caught in the waters off the southern tip of Florida in the mid-1990s, Cubans simply changed directions. Now they're leaving from Cuba's poorly guarded southern and western coasts and crossing to the Yucatán Peninsula, often landing on Isla Mujeres, an island near Cancún.
Before 2005, Cubans who crossed the Texas border were held in a detention facility until their backgrounds were checked and their paperwork processed. But a policy change now allows Cubans to enter the United States the same day they arrive. They're registered as "political asylees."
The number of Cubans entering Texas has skyrocketed. About 11,500 crossed the border legally last year—almost all through Brownsville—which is three times the number that entered through Florida.
As a result, Houston's Cuban community is on the verge of a boom. The city is becoming a popular destination for border-crossing Cubans without friends or relatives waiting in Miami.
Some Cubans find the Texas border an unfriendly place. Some are placed at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos and face an immigration judge who has denied political asylum to every Cuban immigrant who has appeared before him in the last two years.
Cubans entering Texas are often flush with cash, but not all. Some, like Reinier, find themselves broke and alone, unprepared for life in the Valley. Still, despite his few prospects, Reinier knows that unlike other illegal immigrants, he won't be deported.
For at least one nationality, the Texas-Mexico border is an open door.
Cubans were first given a path to residency in the United States in 1966, when the government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, a product of Cold War politics intended to allow Cubans a refuge in this country until the Castro regime was overthrown.
The majority of Cubans moved to Miami or New Jersey during the early years, but about 12,000 settled in Houston. They were mainly from affluent families that had been vacationing in South Texas for years. Because of Houston's location and warm weather, along with its universities and medical centers, the city became a magnet for middle- and upper-class Cubans.
"Back then, everybody knew each other," says Orlando Sanchez, a Houston businessman and politician who was born in Cuba. "We thought we'd all eventually go back home."
These days, Sanchez considers himself a Texan, not a Cuban. He says that his two daughters have few connections to the island and little desire to go there.
The demographic portrait of Cubans in Texas has changed dramatically since Sanchez arrived. In the spring of 1980, Castro opened the port of Mariel, located west of Havana, and allowed foreign boats to take Cubans from the island. Castro emptied the country's jails and mental hospitals to rid the island of "undesirables" and "counterrevolutionaries"—gays, the insane, drug addicts and criminals.
The exodus ended in September 1980, after a U.S. Coast Guard and Naval blockade stopped the inflow of boats. But during the six months that the Mariel port was open, about 125,000 Cubans arrived in Miami.
Tensions between the United States and Cuba heightened during the 1980s, and the tide of refugees slowed to a trickle until the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets had provided generous subsidies for Cuban exports from the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Within a couple years of the Soviet Union's collapse, almost all of its aid to Cuba disappeared. In 1991 alone, the Cuban economy shrank by 24 percent.
As economic pressure built within the country, so did discontent among the people. When desperate Cubans began rioting in the streets, Castro blamed their dissent on a U.S. policy that encouraged Cubans to leave.
Castro announced in a televised speech that "either the U.S. take serious measures to guard their coasts, or we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people who want to leave the country, and we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people in the U.S. who want to come and look for their relatives here."
Damian Jimenez, born and raised in Cuba, was sitting at his mother's house in Havana when the phone rang. His friend was on the other end. He was ecstatic.
"He told me that everyone was leaving, that Castro was letting everyone leave," Jimenez says. "He told me to turn on the television."
Sure enough, Castro had pulled his guards away from the coast, reversing a long-standing Cuban law that punished attempted escape with arrest. During the month following Castro's announcement, an estimated 35,000 Cubans, now known as "balseros," left the island and floated to Florida.
Jimenez and seven friends were among them. They paid about $375 for a raft. After rowing for three days, the group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and, like many of the balseros, taken to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Jimenez was eventually released and shuttled to Miami where a caseworker with Catholic Charities, a resettlement agency, found him a job on a Michigan farm. Ten years later, Jimenez moved to Houston to work for Catholic Charities and help newly arrived Cubans.
In response to the balsero crisis, the U.S. government created a special immigration program for Cuba. Twenty thousand Cubans a year would get visas, which are distributed through a process that Cubans call "the lottery," to live and work in the United States. As a tradeoff, Castro promised to take steps to stop the wave of rafters disembarking from Cuba's shores.
The agreement also led to the creation of a "wet foot/dry foot" policy. Cubans caught in the water are now taxied back to the island on Coast Guard ships. But, if Cubans can make it to U.S. soil, they can stay and seek legal residency.
"Dry foot" Cubans technically enter the country on a one-year parole. At the end of that time, they are required to appear before an immigration judge to have their status upgraded to permanent residency. The new phenomenon of Cubans crossing Mexico by land has given rise to a new term: "dusty foot."
The policy has been widely criticized as hypocritical since its inception. Bizarre and dangerous incidents along the Florida coast—including Cubans threatening to kill themselves or their children to hold the Coast Guard at bay—have drawn attention to the problem.
"We've had cases where...they've poured gasoline on themselves and threatened to light themselves on fire," says Chief Dana Warr, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. "People will stab themselves or cut their wrists to be evacuated by helicopter to a U.S. hospital, and as soon as they touch down, they're 'dry foot.' It's almost like the wild, wild west out there, except on the water."
In June 1999, Coast Guard officers attempted to stop six Cubans from reaching the Miami beach by blasting their boat with a high-power water cannon. When the men bailed into the sea to swim for shore, the officers trolled alongside, spraying pepper spray into their faces.
A crowd gathered on the beach to cheer on the swimmers, and two made it ashore, dashing through police and diving onto the sand. The entire incident was filmed by a news helicopter, and all six men were eventually allowed to enter the United States and awarded a seafood dinner with then-Miami Mayor Joe Carollo.
In 2005, again with news cameras rolling, the Coast Guard tried to seize a homemade Cuban vessel by throwing rope into its propeller, and then using the water cannon to turn back the boat. The Coast Guard tossed life jackets to the Cubans. The Cubans quickly tossed them back.
And in January 2006, 15 Cubans were found on a section of Old Seven Mile Bridge, an abandoned structure in the Florida Keys. The group was deported to Cuba after Coast Guard officials determined the bridge, which had partially collapsed, did not qualify as dry land.
The case was considered a watershed moment, with some Florida politicians calling for complete reform of the government's Cuban policy. One Florida protestor led a hunger strike. Eventually a federal judge ordered immigration officials to attempt to bring the Cubans back. By December 2006, 14 of the 15 were living in the United States.
"Our agents...they're just trying to enforce current U.S. policy," Warr says. "But we understand, the migrants at sea, they're just trying to leave a country they don't want to be in. For what it is, it's illegal migration. We're just trying to control the border."
Since 2005, about 8,500 Cubans have been caught off the coast of Florida and sent back to Cuba. With the Coast Guard clamping down on routes in the Florida Straits and Miami filling up with out-of-work Cubans, it was only a matter of time before balseros and smugglers shifted directions.
"I am not happy with the policy," says Jorge Ferragut, a Cuban who settled in Houston in 1980 and later started Casa Cuba, an organization aimed at helping Cubans who arrive in Texas. "The people that try to leave, they are putting their lives in danger. Yes, it's violating the law, but also the U.S. has known from the beginning the political situation in Cuba."
As a young man, Ferragut wanted to stay in Cuba. But he says that when he realized what little freedom he had, he decided to leave. Ferragut thinks that most Cubans have a similar realization, and says that the latest surge in Cubans leaving could be attributed to an ailing Fidel handing over power to his younger brother Raul last year.
"It's the same tyranny," Ferragut says. "Raul has all the same power; he has been part of the same crime. If something changes, it is only cosmetic."
Ferragut adds that many of the Cubans arriving in the United States today do not leave because of Castro or communism. Their decision is based on economic, rather than political, motives.
Before Harry Reinier left Cuba this spring, he worked in a bakery kneading dough for 10 hours a day and $12 a week. His mother had fled Cuba years earlier for Peru. She sent him money when she could so that he might be able to leave as well.
When a friend told Reinier about a planned escape to Mexico, Reinier emptied his savings and paid $500 to secure a seat on the boat. It was blind faith; he never met the men in charge of the trip.
"Everyone wants to leave Cuba," Reinier says. "When there is money, and there is a chance, that's when they leave."
Rey Rodriguez left Cuba on a calling from God. But when Mexican authorities busted him with false documents nearly four years later, Rodriguez headed for the Texas border.
In Cuba, Rodriguez had been a professional photographer, living in a provincial town in eastern Cuba. He suddenly felt the urge to enter the priesthood, but couldn't find much support for seminarians in Castro's Cuba. He was able to secure a visa to Mexico to further his studies. Then Rodriguez fell in love with a Mexican girl during a religious retreat and impregnated her. Rodriguez abandoned the seminary, and the couple decided to marry and start a family in Morelia, a colonial city in central Mexico.
When Rodriguez applied for Mexican residency at an immigration office, authorities told him he had 72 hours to leave the country or risk deportation. Instead of leaving, Rodriguez purchased false documents that identified him as a Mexican citizen. He destroyed all of his personal belongings that identified or even mentioned his Cuban nationality.
Rodriguez also worked to change his accent, his mannerisms and his word choice. It wasn't easy, because switching between Cuban and Mexican Spanish is like changing a Texas twang to an Irish brogue.
His scheme worked for a while. Rodriguez married his girlfriend, their child was born, and he found part-time work at a Ford dealership. With his brown skin and straight black hair, Rodriguez passed as a Mexican for three years.
Finally, Mexican immigration officials caught and detained him. They let him go after issuing a document stating his name and nationality.
"It was just a plain piece of paper with a stamp, but it was the only identification I had left," Rodriguez says. "The paper said that I had 30 days of parole in Mexico before I would be ordered out of the country."
Rodriguez decided to bolt for the Texas border, where he heard that he could pass into the United States legally. After a full day on a bus from Morelia to Matamoros, Rodriguez reached the border crossing. Fearing he would be caught and sent back to Cuba, his hands trembled as he approached the gate to the international bridge.
Rodriguez fumbled in his pockets for change at the turnstile. He only had a 10-peso piece, the wrong coin. He tried to stuff the peso into the slot but it wouldn't fit. A Mexican guard approached, armed with an automatic rifle.
"Mexico is so corrupt," Rodriguez says. "You're constantly having to pay bribes to get anything done. I thought I would have to pay another bribe to get across."
To Rodriguez's surprise, the guard offered up the correct change. Rodriguez strolled across the bridge and came to a line of people curling out of the U.S. customs office. He started talking to others, telling his story.
The Mexicans were surprised that a Cuban would wait in such a long line. They told him that he could simply walk up to a window inside the office, declare his nationality and claim political asylum. Rodriguez did, and hours later, he walked into Texas.
In December, after months of floundering at the border, including a botched trip to New Orleans to find work, Rodriguez moved to Houston. He lives with Silvino, a Cuban he met while living near the border. The men, along with another Cuban Silvino met in a Mexican prison, live in a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston.
Rodriguez is optimistic about his job prospects now that he's out of the Valley and into the big city, but he misses his wife and two children, who are Mexican citizens and still living in Mexico. He's thought about trying to persuade his family to sneak across the border but says he's going to wait until he has the money to bring them here legally.
Stories like Rodriguez's have some immigration reform groups fuming. The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports ending all preferential treatment of Cubans. Ira Mehlman, a representative of the group, says the U.S.'s Cuban policy encourages all kinds of illegal immigrants—including potential terrorists—to seek asylum.
"It's a vestige of a Cold War-era policy that didn't make sense even during the Cold War. Castro has always been happy to export his political dissidents here to yell and scream," Mehlman says. "Cubans should be treated exactly like everyone else. No better and no worse."
Even some Cuban-Americans are questioning the legitimacy of asylum claims by "dusty foot" Cubans. Grisel Ybarra, an immigration attorney in Miami who fled Cuba in 1962, thinks the Cuban Adjustment Act shouldn't apply in Texas. She thinks that the vast majority of Cubans are seeking better-paying jobs, not political freedom.
"These Cubans come here, tell some bullshit story at the border and they get their green card," Ybarra says. "I came here seeking freedom, not hot dogs. My generation, we are refugees; they are immigrants. If you came to Miami and asked Cubans who came here before Mariel, 99 percent of them would agree with me."
Evidence of human smuggling from Cuba to Mexico is starting to pop up on the Yucatán Peninsula. In fact, Ybarra believes that the majority of Cubans are smuggled from the island in expensive speedboats rather than the type of ramshackle vessel that Reinier crossed in.
"Cubans are the richest Hispanic group in the U.S.," Ybarra says. "We live in $1 million homes in Coral Gables. We have the money to pay for boats to get people out of Cuba."
According to Warr, smugglers charge $8,000 to $10,000 per person. The boats are often stolen from marinas along the Florida coast, Warr says, then used to transport 30 to 40 Cubans in a single trip.
In the Florida Straits, the Coast Guard has become more aggressive toward suspected smugglers. Officers are now instructed to shoot at boats that do not respond to warning shots. Gunfire has a 100 percent success rate, Warr says, and it's no surprise that smugglers have changed directions.
"We know it's happening, that there is a lot of maritime smuggling between Cuba and Mexico," Warr says. "We have a vested interest because, indirectly, that is illegal smuggling into the U.S."
The Coast Guard tries to patrol all international waters surrounding the Cuban, Mexican and U.S. coasts. If Cuban smuggling continues to affect the number of Cubans crossing the Texas border, Warr says that Coast Guard ships could patrol as far south as the Yucatán Channel.
"The Caribbean Sea is 2 million square miles, and we try to patrol every bit of it," he says. "We realize we can't catch them all."
Officials from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo say that Cuban-Americans now have human smuggling rings based on the Yucatán Peninsula. Articles in Granma, the official newspaper in Cuba, which is widely perceived as a mouthpiece for the Cuban regime, have reported that Cubans are dressed up as tourists after arriving on the Mexican coast and then hustled off to an airport in Cancún or Mérida.
Articles in the Mexican press have also speculated that competition for the lucrative trade of Cuban immigrants is responsible for a rash of gruesome homicides on the Yucatán. Quintana Roo Attorney General Bello Melchor Rodriguez contends that the violence is part of an ongoing battle over Cuban smuggling between Mexican drug cartels and a Cuban-American mafia.
The bloodshed started in July, when a Cuban-American man was killed in a shootout outside the National Immigration Institute in Mérida, the largest city in the Yucatán. Then, another Cuban, Luis Lázaro Lara Morejón, was found executed near Cancún, his body dumped on a remote and narrow strip of road.
Days after the Morejón murder, Mexican police followed red arrows painted on a Cancún highway and discovered three dead Mexicans, bound, gagged and blindfolded, partially buried in a sinkhole.
"We believe these people were executed by those who are part of a Cuban-American mafia," Rodriguez told The Associated Press in August. "They probably hired people to execute them."
The Cuban government has blamed both Mexico and the United States for allowing the trafficking to occur and calls the killings part of a "bloody war" between Cuban-Americans and the Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas.
Critics claim the Mexican government is taking few measures to prevent Cubans from entering the country. Reinier found little more than indifference and neglect in Mexico after his group's initial rescue. At first, he was happy to land in Mexico. After 10 days at sea, Reinier's boat was found by a Mexican fisherman hundreds of miles from the intended destination. The fisherman alerted the Mexican navy, which provided the group with food, water and medical attention, then took them to shore.
Reinier was detained at an immigration office in Mérida. Mexican officials told his group that if they could pay a "fine" of $1,000, or arrange for a friend or relative to wire the money, they would be set free.
Reinier and several others in the group were unable to pay and were taken to a prison in Tapachula, nearly 850 miles south of Cancún. Reinier was told he would have to serve three months before being allowed to leave.
Hundreds of Cubans and thousands of Central Americans were detained at the prison. They slept on concrete floors, surviving on a steady diet of watered-down milk, rice and beans.
Reinier says that from time to time, a small group of Cubans would be rounded up for deportation. According to the National Institute of Immigration in Mexico, authorities have detained 876 Cubans this year and deported 271.
The Mexican government has adopted a policy similar to the U.S. wet foot/dry foot rule. Still, all Cubans—even those found at sea—are detained for processing in Mexico. Furthermore, some Cubans seized on land are transported to an airport in Cancún and deported back to Cuba. Others, such as Reinier, are found at sea but eventually released.
Reinier says there seemed to be no logic to who was selected for return to Cuba, and he constantly felt that he might be next for deportation. But five months passed and Reinier remained in Tapachula. When workers from Grupo Beta, a Mexican humanitarian organization, visited the prison, Reinier decided to file a complaint with the group because he was languishing in the jail months after his anticipated release.
Reinier was then taken before an immigration judge at the prison. The judge said that if Reinier withdrew his complaint, he would be allowed to leave. Days later, after a hearty dinner and a night in a $10 hotel, Reinier was on a bus rumbling north through Mexico.
Marisela Campuzano devoted her life to ballet in Cuba. But when the Cuban government sent her to Venezuela on a "mission" to teach budding young ballerinas, Campuzano used the opportunity to escape for the United States.
Campuzano and her husband bought fake passports and attempted to fly out of the country. But Venezuelan immigration officials busted them and confiscated the passports. Then Campuzano tried paying a man who said he had a contact in the U.S. Embassy and could provide a visa for the right price. That plan failed as well.
After losing money a second time, the couple remained in Venezuela until they managed to obtain a legal visa to visit Mexico. After eight years, the couple, along with their young son, took a flight to Reynosa, a border town across from McAllen, and entered the United States.
That was in 2000, when the trend of Cubans crossing the Texas border was about as unique as Mexicans floating to Miami. Customs officials were not versed in Cuban policy, Campuzano says, and her family was told to return to Mexico.
"We would rather go to jail than go back," Campuzano says, "so we made up a story."
Campuzano and her husband told customs officers that they had taken a boat from Cuba to Mexico, and that they had paid smugglers to transport them to the U.S. border. Campuzano pleaded that she could not return to Mexico because she feared for her life.
Customs officials took Campuzano and her husband to a detention facility where they waited for an immigration hearing. After 10 days, they were released, and Campuzano's aunt and uncle brought the family to Houston.
Before 2005, all Cubans were held at detention facilities for weeks at a time until they could be processed, according to Felix Garza, an agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But as spots at the detention facilities started to fill up, and the trickle of Cubans along the border turned into a tide, the Department of Homeland Security changed the policy to allow for almost immediate parole.
Still, some Cubans are detained.
"Once we begin the processing, we do have the authority to make an arrest," says Garza, who oversees border crossings from Del Rio to Brownsville. Garza says that a Cuban could be detained if he is determined to be sick or mentally ill or to have a criminal record.
"The policy on that kind of shifts from day to day," says Jodie Goodwin, an attorney in Harlingen. Goodwin has practiced immigration law along the Texas border for more than a decade and has seen the Cuban boom firsthand. She has represented a number of Cubans detained at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos.
"They're not stupid," she says. "They know they're probably not going to die crossing the bridge in Texas, where who knows floating the 90 miles to Miami."
One of the Cubans that Goodwin represents was detained because he entered the country by swimming the river. When the man made it across, he flagged down a Border Patrol truck and turned himself in.
"I can't figure out why a Cuban would swim the river...but I've actually seen a number of these cases," Goodwin says. "He knew about the policy. He just didn't know about the bridge."
While in detention, Cubans must wait to go before an immigration judge and defend their claims of political asylum. At the Port Isabel center, where Brownsville detainees are taken, that means facing Judge Howard E. Achtsam.
"If you're unfortunate enough to get Judge Achtsam, that means you're probably going to get denied," Goodwin says. "I think he has got to be the only immigration judge in the country that routinely denies asylum for Cubans."
Achtsam, who has served as an immigration judge since 1986, could not be reached for comment. A representative with the U.S. Department of Justice says federal immigration judges do not answer questions from the press. But statistics reveal that in the last two years, every Cuban that has passed through Port Isabel has been denied asylum.
Goodwin's client who swam the river has been detained for four months. The man is still waiting for his asylum hearing. But Achtsam already turned down the man's request for bond. In recent months, the docket at Port Isabel has been so packed that an immigration judge in Washington, D.C., has started hearing cases via video conference. Goodwin is optimistic that her client will not have to face Achtsam again.
"He's going to get another judge and probably going to get his asylum," she says.
But even if a Cuban is denied political asylum, it means little more than an extended stay at the detention facility. Goodwin says that if the asylum is denied again during appeal, policy requires a final review within 90 days. That review usually results in release from detention, only without asylee status.
At that point, however, the Cuban will usually have been in the country for one year, the period of time necessary to qualify for a green card.
"They can't send them back to Cuba. It basically means a lot of wasting of government resources and a lot of wasting of private resources," Goodwin says. "It's all a game. The ultimate end for all Cubans is just to get here and stay."
On a sunny morning in November, a group of Cuban women huddled in the corner of a waiting room at the customs office in Brownsville. Two of the women had dyed their hair a bronzy-blond. Another wore a pair of bright pink Nike Shocks.
Outside, a line of immigrants from other countries waiting to cross the border stretched out of the building and onto the international bridge.
The women, along with two Cuban men, had arrived at the border at midnight and were waiting for a turn to be interviewed by an officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Cubans are asked a series of questions to determine whether they should be allowed to enter. The interviews take several hours, and unless they are detained, Cubans are given their one-year parole papers the same day they arrive.
While the women wait, customs officers interrogate two Cuban men who arrived with the women. Unlike Rodriguez and Reinier, it's clear that their trip has been immaculately planned and well-financed.
Garza, the customs agent, looks at one of the group suspiciously. He asks the skinny, mustachioed young man named Rolando to empty his pockets. Rolando takes out a leather wallet bulging with $20 bills and a small address book.
While another agent continues the questioning, Garza flips through the notebook, which is filled with phone numbers and details for his trip through Mexico. Garza's eyes widen when he comes to a familiar name.
"Fidelito!" he exclaims. "Do you know Fidelito?" Garza is referring to Fidelito Castro, Fidel's oldest son and ex-head of Cuba's nuclear energy program.
Rolando looks horrified. No, he says, it's not Fidelito Castro; he's only a friend from school.
Garza asks him if Fidel Castro is dead. Rolando shakes his head to answer no.
"When was the last time you saw him alive?"
"About a month ago," Rolando says.
Reinier crossed the Texas border with relative ease, but he was broke.
To pay for his bus fares and traveling expenses, he had taken loans from the relative of a Cuban he met in the Mexican prison. Reinier had promised to pay back the money once he arrived in the United States. At the moment, though, that was the least of his concerns.
After getting parole, Reinier walked to a small park across the street from the customs office in Brownsville. Shade trees provide cover for concrete benches, and recently arrived immigrants often rest in the park or wait for companions. Reinier began asking strangers for advice.
He eventually found his way to a Catholic church in the heart of Brownsville. The church contacted Sister Margaret Mertens, a former Catholic-school teacher from Missouri who now runs a small shelter for refugees about 30 miles north of the border.
After a few weeks at the shelter, Reinier feels stuck. When he stepped aboard the homemade boat and set out for Mexico, he knew it would be the last time that he would ever see Cuba. His sister is still there, along with his wife and child. He misses the place.
Reinier rarely leaves the shelter grounds, which are surrounded by acres of dirt and sugarcane fields, miles from any of the businesses in San Benito or Harlingen that might provide work. He sometimes gets a ride into town from Sister Margaret to go to the bank and cash his government assistance checks (see "The Boss Nun").
Most days, Reinier's either studying English or completing a chore or cooking dinner for other refugees. He's applied for several jobs in surrounding towns but thinks that whites and Mexican-Americans are suspicious of a black man with a funny Spanish accent.
He's waiting on his immigration hearing to get his official green card. He says he's confused about what's going on most of the time.
"You could put a paper in front of me that says, 'This black guy will be your slave,' and I would sign it," Reinier says, "because I have no idea what I'm signing."
On a warm fall evening, Reinier paces across the concrete floors of a building at the shelter. The wire meshing tacked in the window frames does little to keep out the insects. Mosquitoes buzz around the fluorescent lights overhead. A lawn mower and rusty bicycle stand against a wall, and a stack of discarded suitcases leans in one corner.
Another Cuban at the shelter pulls pieces of ham from a refrigerator and talks as he pours a glass of juice.
"While we're here, we can't do anything," the man says. "We're looking for a job to pay bills, to pay rent. It's just like being in Cuba."
But Reinier has some hope. He figures that he can venture out on his own as soon as he learns enough English. He doesn't know much about the Texas away from the border and wants to leave the state so he can find work. He's heard of a place called Kentucky, where he dreams of settling down.
"I have no idea what it's like there," he says, "but it sounds calm and peaceful, with plenty of jobs for Cubans. I think that it's a place where I could raise a family."
For now, Reinier remains in the Valley. The living conditions at the shelter aren't great, Reinier admits, but at least he has a bed to sleep in and food to eat. He's too tired and weary to start a new journey.
The important thing is that he's here, dry foot, in Texas.
So much pain and suffering, so much hearthbreak has been caused by the Castro regime in Cuba. Now our government is expending so many resources on keeping these refugees--yes, refugees out when the reality is the U.S could easily absorb the islands entire population. We should have an open door for fleeing Cubans, end of story.
Comment by Ziva — January 11, 2008 @ 09:35PM
Employee Stock Purchase Plan.
If your company has one, you should be in it for as much as they allow. An ESPP allows you to buy stock at a discount (usually 15%) off of the low over a certain period (usually 6 months). If you sell it immediately, it's almost impossible not to make money (*). And it's a lot more than 15% APR, since you contribute by paycheck (e.g. your last contribution of the period makes 15% in two weeks!).
(*) The only danger is if the company stock tanked badly in the day or two between the end of the ESPP period and you actually receiving the stock. Unlikely for most people.
PAUL B. FARRELL
Best-kept secret on Wall Street
Dividend reinvestment plans cut out the middlemen
By Paul B. Farrell, MarketWatch
Last update: 6:57 p.m. EDT April 10, 2005
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ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. (MarketWatch) -- Don't trust brokers? No confidence in fund managers? Cut out the middleman. Here's how: Buy stocks directly from a company. Become one of America's DRIP investors.
Never heard of them? I'm not surprised. Vita Nelson, editor of the Moneypaper newsletter, calls corporate dividend reinvestment programs, or DRIPs, the "best-kept secret on Wall Street."
Most people haven't heard about them for one simple reason -- companies can't advertise their DRIPs. Why? Because brokers and fund managers can't sock you with big fees and commissions if you buy stocks directly from a company. So they won't tell you the "best-kept secret" and they've made sure Congress and the SEC keep it a secret too.
But I can tell you. DRIPs are a great way to get on the dividend bandwagon. DRIPs are a simple way to invest dollars and reinvest dividends. DRIPs are a great long-term saving plan that can help you build a retirement portfolio of solid blue-chips.
And it's "so easy," says Charles Carlson, editor of the DRIP Investor newsletter and author of several books on investing, including "Buying Stocks Without a Broker" and "No-Load Stocks" (another buzzword for DRIPs), both great primers for the new DRIP investor.
More than 1,000 major companies offer DRIPs, including Coca-Cola (KO:
The Coca-Cola Company
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KO 59.33, -0.92, -1.5%) , Disney (DIS:
Walt Disney Company
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DIS 32.36, +0.42, +1.3%) , Exxon Mobil (XOM:
exxon mobil corp com
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XOM 92.46, -0.14, -0.1%) , Home Depot (HD:
Home Depot, Inc
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HD 29.78, +0.86, +3.0%) , Pfizer (PFE:
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PFE 20.43, +0.39, +2.0%) and Walgreen (WAG:
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WAG 35.49, -0.33, -0.9%) . Plus great foreign brands like AXA, BP, Barclays, GlaxoSmithKline and Toyota, all administered through ADRs by American banks, also offer DRIPs.
"In the Dow, Exxon has perhaps the most user-friendly DRIP," Carlson says. "You can make initial purchases directly. Minimum initial investment is $250. There is no enrollment fee and no purchase fees. The Exxon plan also has an IRA option, including a Roth IRA."
And you have to love Carlson's eight-stock "starter" DRIP portfolio. This winner had an 18.8% average annual return the past 10 years, handily beating the S&P 500's 10.3% percent average. Put another way, if you invested $1,000 in each of these stocks 10 years ago -- a total of just $8,000 -- your portfolio would have grown to a loveable $45,040 today.
The portfolio includes Medtronics (MDT:
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MDT 49.42, -0.04, -0.1%) , Popular (BPOP:
popular inc com
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BPOP 11.85, +0.06, +0.5%) , Walgreen, Pfizer, Dollar General (DG:
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DG, , ) , Exxon Mobil, Regions Financial (RF:
regions financial corp new com
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RF 22.22, +0.36, +1.7%) and Disney. See accompanying chart.
And if you don't have $8,000 to start, Carlson suggests an even simpler four-stock portfolio with a super-low initial investment: Popular, Exxon Mobil, Cash America (CSH:
Cash America International, Inc
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CSH 48.21, +2.76, +6.1%) and Aqua America (WTR:
aqua america inc com
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WTR 18.04, +0.05, +0.3%) : "Buying into these four stocks costs you just $1,100 to start. And all of your money goes to work for you, no enrollment fees and no purchase fees."
Eight stocks may not be enough diversification for your needs. And you may still want some bond funds to build a balanced portfolio for your lifestyle. Carlson's books are filled details about asset allocations, company picks and alternative portfolios to fit all kinds of lifestyles, from young families to mature retirees.
Where to begin
How to get started? You need at least one share of stock to start (DRIP programs are only available to existing investors). There are three great organizations that will show you how to buy that first share or help you find one of the 300 companies that will let you get started buying that first share directly: DRIPinvestor.com, NetStockDirect.com and Moneypaper.com. Visit DRIPinvestor.com. See NetStockDirect.com. Check out Moneypaper.com.
According to these experts, building your stock portfolio using DRIPs is about as easy as opening any other account. Here are Carlson's eight steps for getting started in DRIPs:
Select the best companies
Research the plan's specifics before investing
Buy the first share of company stock
Wait for the stock certificate
Tell the company you want join their DRIP plan
Fill out and return their DRIP enrollment form
Know the rules about making cash payments
Keep good records
After you make your initial investment, you then add to it on a regular monthly basis. In fact, you can make it even easier by setting it up as an automatic deduction from your bank account. And today most transfer agents allow buying in DRIP plans via the Internet.
One drawback to some of the plans, says Carlson: "In recent years we see more companies with no-load stocks implementing fees in the plan. These fees are generally $5 to $18 for enrollment fees and purchase fees of $5 plus $0.10 per share."
Still, that's better buy than paying all the commissions, fees, trading costs and annual operating expenses the middlemen siphon off.
Big savings: no loads, no fund expenses
With DRIPs you can save upfront loads plus those endless annual management fees of 1.5% to 3% you have to pay your broker to buy the stocks and then hold onto them indefinitely.
Plus you'll save even more by buying stocks directly and not investing in a mutual fund. Remember, the fund simply turns around and invests your money in stocks and then charges an average 1.4% annual fee.
Think of it this way, you're creating your own private fund of DRIP stocks. You cut out all the broker's loads and you've eliminated the fund's operating expenses. And on top of that, you'll likely outperform Wall Street's hotshots and the vast majority fund managers.
Simple! But don't tell anyone. Remember, DRIPs are Wall Street's best-kept secret.
10-year growth of $1,000 DRIP