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Monday, June 21, 2004

MySA.com: Metro | Hard work rewarded

MySA.com: Metro | State

Hard work rewarded
Web Posted: 06/21/2004 12:00 AM CDT
Hernán Rozemberg
Express-News Immigration Writer

ROCKSPRINGS — His high-pitched yowl reverberated across the sun-drenched prairie, hushing the chirping birds and drowning out the wind rustling the tall grass.

José Fragoso Escamilla stepped up onto the fence and scanned the vast pasture.

"Yeeeeeeeep!" he belted out again, his small, thin frame hiding the prowess of his lungs.

The sheep responded immediately. A large group had huddled near the fence, as if awaiting his arrival. Others trekked from deep in the ranch to answer the call.

Fragoso wasn't raised as a shepherd in his native Altamira, Mexico, but today he could be the proudest one in South Texas. He is one of the few immigrants to earn a green card, or permanent legal residence, by tending sheep.

In fact, the U.S. government doles out only 10,000 green cards per year for "unskilled workers," a category that easily could include most of the country's 8 million to 12 million undocumented migrants.

"You don't often hear about people immigrating as shepherds," said Dan Kane, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It goes to show that there's still room for everyone under the big ol' American tent."

How did Fragoso pull it off? Simple: He impressed the Cottle brothers.

Bobby and Stan Cottle manage a 2,000-acre ranch and feed store in Rocksprings, a town of 1,300 people known as a shepherding hub 21/2 hours west of San Antonio.

Bobby Cottle vividly recalled the day he met Fragoso — known around here as "Joe" — in 1986. Toiling then as an undocumented migrant, Fragoso was on the Cottle property clearing cedar trees for a contractor.

"Every day, there was one chainsaw that started one hour before the others," Cottle said. "It was the same chainsaw that kept running one hour after the rest at night."

It was the type of work ethic Cottle was looking for, and he offered Fragoso a job as a ranch hand.

The Cottles were able to get a work permit for Fragoso, but they grew tired of going through the arduous renewal process every year.

In 2001, they decided to sponsor him for permanent residence, hiring San Antonio immigration lawyer Joe De Mott to handle the case.

Thousands of dollars and three years later, the green card finally arrived in March. For both employer and employee, it was a day they thought they'd never see.

The Cottles knew little about the infamously labyrinthine U.S immigration system. De Mott had to comb through inches-thick job listings before settling on the shepherd category as Fragoso's best shot.

They also faced the Labor Department hurdle. They had to create a new position and advertise it — to prove that qualified U.S. citizens weren't passed over for a job being offered to an immigrant.

Bobby Cottle remembered with a wry smile receiving a single application, from Montana, but he didn't have to respond because it arrived after the posted deadline.

Now 44, Fragoso hasn't lost his workaholic ways.

While out feeding the livestock , a shepherd could simply dump the food and move on to the next herd.

Not Fragoso.

At each pasture, he nonchalantly waits until the last straggler shows up before climbing the fence and meticulously emptying the bags of feed in straight lines.

In all, 1,000 sheep and goats depend on him every day, a task he still considers a challenge.

"I really worry about them," he said, his soft, steadfastly dispassionate voice trailing off as he double-counted all 62 sheep in one pasture. "I always wonder if they have enough food and water."

After more than two decades, the relationship between the Cottles and Fragoso has turned into a well-structured quid pro quo arrangement.

"We need each other," Fragoso said in Spanish, which he still prefers, though he understands most of what the Cottles tell him in English. "They're great bosses. I'm a hard worker."

The care Fragoso put into the job eventually produced a reciprocal need for the Cottles to look after him.

Indeed, they've grown on one another. Fragoso has earned de facto membership in the Cottle family.

Kids call him Uncle Joe. He proudly dons a beat-up red Texas Tech hat, given to him by Stan Cottle's daughter, Kayla, who studies there.

Fragoso's presence is required at family get-togethers.

"He's part of the family," Stan Cottle's wife, Corrinne, said while ringing up customers at the family store, Country Boys Feed and Supply. "I hope we never lose him."

Actually, they could.

With his newly gained freedom as a permanent resident, Fragoso is free to pack up any day and work wherever and for whomever he wants.

It was a risk the Cottles were aware of — a chance they were willing to take.

It may not be a shining image of the American dream, but Fragoso believes he enjoys a lifestyle many immigrants could only imagine: friendly, respectful bosses who are not slave drivers, free housing with utilities included and a steady salary — $1,000 monthly, plus $7 per hour on optional odd jobs.

He's in Rocksprings for good.

"I am really grateful for what they've done for me," Fragoso said. "I wouldn't want — or need — to go anywhere else."

In fact, he only had one lamentation: Not having his wife and kids here.

But even that sore spot could be remedied. The Cottles decided to pay for them to emigrate from Mexico, saving up their sponsorship tab over the years to about $10,000.

The family request should be approved, De Mott said, but it may take two years before Soledad, José Rodolfo, 5, and Jaime Alberto, 3, can come.

In the meantime, Fragoso intends to stay busy.

The sheep are hungry again.

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