When crossing the border is your daily commute

A day in the life of agricultural laborers whose work and lives straddle the Arizona-Mexican border.

 

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes about water and other environmental issues in the Denver area.


The workday starts early at the border town of San Luis, Arizona. When I drive in at 3:30 a.m., easing my rental car into an unlighted parking space in a dirt lot, a few old former school buses, now painted white, are already running. Scores more wait silently for passengers.

Men and a few women huddle here and there, talking quietly and staring into their smartphones. They are among the 8,000 to 10,000 Mexicans who cross the border every day here during the winter. Once in America, they will labor in the fields of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables that stock the produce sections of our grocery stores. 

One mile outside of a border patrol check point near the Arizona-Mexico border.
Jeremy Keith/Flickr user

Many workers had begun their commutes much earlier that morning. The laborers employed by Elkhorn Shipping Co., one of several dozen companies that contract with growers around Yuma, Arizona, often travel 40 minutes each morning just to get to the border. Others live in San Luis Rio Colorado, the Mexican city on the other side of our fence of corrugated metal, topped by concertina barbed wire.

Many walk across the border, sometimes setting out as early as 1 a.m., because they are never sure how long the border crossing will take. An hour is the usual travel time, but sometimes two, I was told, and three hours or more is not uncommon.

This particular morning had been proclaimed a protest around the country — “A Day Without Immigrants” — and laborers had been urged to stay home in response to President Donald Trump's blustery talk about Mexicans taking away American jobs. Some wondered if the buses congregating in the parking lot of McDonald’s — and every other empty space near the border — would fill today.

Most buses filled. The men and women showing up for work needed the money: $10 an hour, the new minimum wage in Arizona, although some said they did a little better. Most work under temporary H-2A visas for foreign agricultural workers. Some others have green cards entitling them to live in the United States, yet many chose to live more cheaply in Mexico with their families. 

In Yuma, I was told repeatedly that without the daily flux of immigrants, there would be no planting of lettuce and cabbage and carrots from September until Christmas, no harvesting of leafy-greens into April. These fields provide 80 to 90 percent of our winter produce. Pausing along roads to study the crews hard at work in the fields, I guessed I’d last a half-hour on the job.

One man, with passably good English, told me he figured he spent as much as 16 hours a day to get paid for eight hours of work. The clock for him and other workers doesn't start until they get to the fields, and for some, the fields begin across another border, in California, in the Imperial Valley, another hour and a half of bumpy riding away.

By the time I notice light in the eastern sky, most of the old school buses that had clogged the parking lot of Chase bank and the other businesses along the main street were gone. The men and the women with the small backpacks carrying their lunches and other daily necessities had been replaced by children, many of whom had also crossed the border on their way to school. 

There were mysteries about the daily processing of thousands of people on our southern border that I didn't unravel. But the greatest mystery of all awaited me after I had flown home to Denver. Eating dinner, including coleslaw that was composed of cabbage and carrots that may have been harvested by some of the men and women I’d just had seen, I watched President Trump’s press conference on C-SPAN.

Trump talked about jobs lost to Mexico and about his plans to beef up border security. “And we’re going to have a wall that works,” he said. “We’re not going to have a wall like they have now that is either nonexistent or a joke.”

It is true that drugs seem to move with ease across the border, while legitimate workers have to go through a tedious gauntlet. Yet President Trump talks only of threats and fear, not of what we share or our mutual needs. Most disturbing is his disrespect. This man needs to get out of his gilded country club and spend some time on the border. Or maybe in the field. I hear that farmers in Arizona are looking for workers.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.