Few people are so familiar with life on both sides of the US-Mexican border as Oscar Hagelsieb. As the child of illegal immigrants and a former US Border Patrol official, Hagelsieb is personally aware of the boundary both as an obstacle against opportunity and as a 1,954-mile long line of protection.
Hagelsieb, whose story is featured in the recently released documentary Kingdom of Shadows, grew up in the outskirts of El Paso, Texas and knew from an early age that he wanted to work in border patrol. But he was nervous about what his parents would think, and asked his father’s permission before he started the role.
“My dad’s my biggest hero and I didn’t want to disappoint him or offend him. He had crossed illegally several times and I didn’t know what his opinion was of border control,” Hagelsieb tells Quartz. “My parents didn’t want better lives for themselves—for them it would have been more convenient for them to stay in Mexico with their home and family—but for their children, for us.”
Remarkably, Hagelsieb’s father recognized the difficulty of his son’s decision, and encouraged him to take the job. “He said that the border patrol and federal law enforcement needed individuals like me to humanize the experience,” says Hagelsieb.
His parents eventually managed to legalize their immigration status in the US, and so their presence in the country didn’t directly conflict with Hagelsieb’s work. But when he started working as a border patrol agent in Fabens, Texas in 2000, Hagelsieb had to stop several families, just like his own, who were travelling to the US for the sake of their children.
He refuses to be drawn on whether US immigration law needs to be tweaked. “I have no opinion one way or the other,” he says. “As a federal agent, I uphold the laws that lawmakers pass.” But Hagelsieb says that, though that aspect of his job was difficult, he found a way to cope when he had to stop families:
Lots of them have mortgages, they’ve put their farms up for sale in order to afford being smuggled into the United States. So in a sense you’re shattering their dream. But I was also able to explain to them, in their language, that there are legal ways of immigrating into the United States. I gave them a sense of hope that it wasn’t all despair and that they would be able to immigrate legally.
Hagelsieb, now 42 years old, wanted to protect the US-Mexican border because, as a teenager in El Paso, he saw so many friends in jail or dead after they were caught smuggling drugs.
And with his tattoos, goatee, and beloved motorcycle, Hagelsieb was soon recruited to work undercover. In 2001, he became a special agent in El Paso’s anti-smuggling unit.
“Since I grew up in the area where the cartels operate, I understood the lingo, I knew the game,” he says. Hagelsieb’s helped infiltrate large drug cartels and dismantle a ruthless human smuggling operation, rising up the ranks to assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso.
Hagelsieb’s looks mean he’s not always treated with the same respect as other federal agents, and often faces intense questioning at airport security. “I don’t dress and I don’t look like a federal agent, so I break the stereotype of what a federal agent is. Some individuals label you as a criminal, as an individual who’s involved in drugs,” he says. “But I understand it comes with the territory.”
Hagelsieb’s personal identity, after all, is built on navigating complicated territory.
Kingdom of Shadows, a documentary about the drug war in Mexico, was released on Nov. 20.