On the borderline

January 7, 2014:
On the borderline: 
Farmworkers at the Mexicali - Calexico border in the early morning. 
A little background.  I worked in the 1970s in the fields and spent 4 winters in the Imperial Valley area where I’d come following the crop cycle.  During the months of December, January, and February I crossed the border almost daily to work on lettuce ground crews in the Imperial Valley and Yuma.  There were a lot of inconveniences, a lot of uncomfortable conditions and injustices that workers had to endure.  Often company foremen and labor contractors would have workers crossing the border early, at 4:00 AM, only to wait for hours on a bus while the company considered its options or inspected the conditions in the fields.  There were times when we traveled to the field on cold mornings only to have to wait for hours while the lettuce warmed enough to be cut.  There were times when we traveled, even long distances, to a field, only to turn back because of rain.  Most often these lost hours went unpaid, although there were some concessions by some growers for waiting and traveling time at the height of the union movement era.   Most often in those winter months we’d cross the border to work in the dark and return in the dark.  Living in cheap hotels near the border in those days, returning after dark meant returning to a place with no hot water, it meant a cold shower in a cold room.  But one thing I never had to endure in those years was waiting to cross the border on foot in the mornings from Mexicali to Calexico.  While crossing in cars was usually slow, the crossing on foot never took more than a few minutes.  That was back in the late 1970s.

Today, crossing the Mexicali / Calexico border on foot to work is something akin to torture and humiliation.  I’d heard from workers about long waits in the mornings to cross, but until this past Monday, I hadn’t experienced it first hand.  Here I’ll give an account of the morning (Monday, January 6) and I’ll fill in the picture with some notes from discussions with various people in the Mexicali-Calexico-Yuma area.

I  arrived in Calexico from El Centro at about 2:15 AM.  I took note on the car thermometer that it was 41 degrees  out.   I came with Freulan, a veteran farmworker from the 1970s who worked for a time with the Teamster’s union as an organizer but who was forced out for denouncing the corruption he witnessed.  Freulan grew up in the border area and worked in the lettuce fields for decades. As he noted on a number of occasions, it’s been 30 years since any efforts have been made to improve the conditions of farmworkers, and those conditions have deteriorated and continue to deteriorate.

We parked our car near the De Anza hotel which is 4 or 5 block walk from the border.  On the way to the border there were already a fair number of people walking the streets.  Some were carrying pieces of cardboard.  I knew  that Carlos, a friend of Freulan’s, had gone a few days before to the border crossing at San Luis, Rio Colorado to check on the situation there, and found farmworkers sleeping on the streets waiting for the labor contractor buses to show up.  The significance of this didn’t really strike me until I saw these workers, who’d crossed the line very early to avoid the long waits there -- with these pieces of cardboard which they intended use to cushion themselves from the hard pavement while they rested and waited for the buses to take them to the fields!

I talked to one worker a block from border and he confirmed this.  He said he’d crossed to avoid the long, tedious wait.  His attitude was one of resignation, with resentment just below the surface.  He was very open to talking about the situation, the long border waits in particular, the suffering in the cold mornings and the 4 generations of workers – teenagers to older veterans – he was quite emphatic about that – who are were forced to endure this.  While we were talking I saw a number of people with cardboard boxes torn open, making their way up the street from the border.

We arrived on the Mexicali side about 2:30.  There is a long passageway from the street to the border crossing which some people call “el tunel” – which is lined with small puestos.  Only a few of these were open, selling newspapers, candies, and so on, and one with a taco stand called Dulceria del Valle.  Freulan thought it a bit strange that there were so few people in the passageway, but we thought that it was still early.  As time went on, and the crowds continued to be thin, we realized this was not an ordinary morning.  The women working in the taco stand also commented that the crowds were far sparser than normal.  Their stand struck out into the passageway a few feet, and they told me that not infrequently the crowds were so densely packed in the passageway that they had to pull their counter in to the adjoining kitchen space to make room for them. Throughout the morning we heard people coming up the passageway say things like, “there’s hardly a line today”.  It wasn’t clear why this was the case until it was pointed out later that it was el Dia de los Reyes Magos and a lot of people were staying home with their children or otherwise celebrating.

The passageway I’m describing begins from a stairway off the street in Mexicali, extends for a 100 yards or so to another staircase which extends upward to the immigration office which is on the street level of Calexico.  All Monday morning lines extended down the stairs from the immigration office to the passageway level but they never stretched back more than 20 to 30 yards and, unlike many other mornings, they did not stretch across the passageway as I’d seen others in photos and heard described.

There are two lines that lead to the immigration office through which people pass to get to Calexico.  One line is called the “Ready Line”.  It’s for people who have a visa that works like a Fast Trac device.  People with these visas just swipe them through a machine as they enter the immigration office and their data appears on the computer screen.  The people with these visas seemed to be a small minority of those crossing.  Everyone else was in the regular line.  The Ready Line moved quickly while the regular line seemed glacially slow.
Even on a holiday when lines were small the wait was more than an hour.

We talked to people in line – workers going to the lettuce machines; others working in the “sprinkles” irrigation; lettuce cutters working by hour at minimum wage; citrus workers working by piece rate.  Though each had their  own take on the morning lines, they all agreed that this morning was unusual and that it was not unusual to have to wait 2, 3 hours or more to cross the border.  One worker said, “Nothing’s going to be done until someone dies, and it’ll happen because the situation here is out of control”.  He went on to describe the anger that flares at times when the frustration of waiting overtakes people, or the resentment that sparks off when an organized group pushes their way to the front, which sometimes happens.  

Children who go to school in Calexico have to wait in these lines as well, though it’s not clear if they get preferential treatment.  In Yuma I spoke with a teacher from the  Gadsden school district who told me that children in her elementary school class have to get up at 4 in the morning to cross over from San Luis Rio Colorado to school that begins at 8 AM.

While in the passageway we noticed that piñatas hanging from one of the stands were swaying.  It was a cold wind that cut through the passageway – it was uncomfortably cold and breezy.  I asked about where someone might find a bathroom and was directed to several doors at the start of the passageway on the Mexicali end.  These were iron doors with no markings and they were both closed.  While I was taking photos in the passageway a guard of sorts approached me and asked what I was doing.  I explained why I was there and he seemed satisfied.  I was able to talk to him for a while.  His name was Alejandro and he’d worked the area at night for 3 years.  He made less than $100 a week, but said his job gave him a small break on his rent in the Infonavit housing.  He told me that the bathrooms were closed ever since the person who used to take care of them had died.  Anyone needing a bathroom would have to leave the passageway and go out on the street to and find relief in a store or restaurant in Mexicali.  When I asked him how that could be when people had to routinely wait 2 or 3 hours to cross, he just shrugged.  Alejandro’s job is to watch for taggers and thieves.

At about 4:30 we decided to cross over.  Freulan got into the Ready Line with his visa and went through rather quickly.  I got in the regular line at the bottom of the stairway at the Calexico end of the passageway.  At 4:45 I got a text from my goddaughter who’d come down with me from S.F.  She and her sister were staying with relatives in Mexicali and we’d arranged to meet at the border that morning.  I found her in line at the beginning of the stairway.  The 3 of us went up the line together.  After making our way up the stairs we came to the level of the immigration office where we had to go through a revolving door.  As I saw the people ahead of me go through it, they reminded me of prisoners with leg shackles trying to walk, as people were crammed very close together in the revolving door.  My god daughter said later that watching people go through the door reminded her of cattle being herded. When my turn came I felt like a prisoner as well, packed in with close bodies, shuffling forward with small steps.

While the line was far shorter than normal, we didn’t get into the immigration office area until about 5:50.  In the office I saw that there were just 3 counters open.  Each person seeking to cross had to put their ID card in a machine before approaching the counter.  I had my passport which I shoved into the machine.  When I reached the counter I was asked a number of stock, inane questions – “Where are you going?”  “Where are you coming from?”  “Why were you in Mexicali?”, etc.  My god-daughter was also asked how she planned to return to S.F.  There were just 3 counters with agents to allow people to pass through and it seems that no matter how large the crowds are waiting to cross, the immigration maintains a tiny staff to handle this job.  Despite the massive buildup of the border patrol to hunt down immigrants, only a tiny crew can be spared to help facilitate people getting to work.  It’s as though the S.F. Bay Bridge had only 4 lanes open in the morning rush hour.  I can imagine the hell that would break loose if people had to wait 2, 3, 4 hours every morning to cross the bridge.  And here farmworkers not only have to wait, but wait in the cold chill of morning.  This is totally unnecessary, even punitive.  I’d call it criminal negligence on the part of both the U.S. and Mexican governments. 

One aspect of this process of crossing the border which a number of people I spoke with were upset about, is the effect it has on women.  Especially when there are large crowds and people are packed into the passageway, women suffer the indignities of being groped and even sexually abused.  My god daughter told me that when she was in the revolving door a man behind her pushed himself up against her from behind in an act that she felt was deliberate. 

There is no one from either the Mexican side or the U.S. side to watch over the situation even though it is hazardous to women and potential dangerous to everyone.  The only person even assigned to watch over things, Alejandro, is hired to do so to protect property, not people. 

While waiting in a line that turned out to be a little more than an hour long, and even while I knew I was leaving and wouldn’t have to be in such a line again, I felt frustrated and irritated.  I can’t imagine having to wait in even longer lines every day just to get to work. 

These long waits at the border rob people of their rest and must be damaging to peoples’ health, especially so with women, with the double burden they often share as workers and mainstay of families.  When I was interviewing people a few years ago for the book Lettuce Wars a woman farmworker told me she crossed the border at midnight to avoid the long waits and had to sleep in her van.  She slept poorly as she was always on edge, fearful of oversleeping and missing her bus to work.  She said she had young children at home she had no choice but to leave alone while she went to work. 

After crossing over to Calexico we went and had coffee at a nearby fast food place.  I noticed that the sun came up around 7 AM, 5 hours after the workers we saw earlier had crossed over.  One of the workers I spoke with at the borderline said he normally left his home at 2:30 and didn’t get back until 6 PM,  15 ½ hours later.  This is clearly not untypical. 

On the street in Calexico and at the passageway leading to the border crossing it was not difficult to talk to people.  Many seemed anxious to talk and there was anger and resentment barely below the surface.  I hope something can be done to expose this grotesque abuse.  Such an exposure might be the spark for some positive action . . .