Daily com­mute con­tin­ues from Mex­ico to California farms

Ripon Bulletin - - Local / State -

CALEXICO (AP) — The daily com­mute from Mex­ico to California farms is the same as it was be­fore Don­ald Trump be­came president. Hun­dreds of Mex­i­cans cross the bor­der and line the side­walks of Calexico’s tiny down­town by 4 a.m., nap­ping on card­board sheets and blan­kets or sip­ping cof­fee from a 24-hour dough­nut shop un­til buses leave for the fields.

For decades, cross-bor­der com­muters have picked let­tuce, car­rots, broc­coli, onions, cauliflower and other veg­eta­bles that make California’s Im­pe­rial Val­ley “Amer­ica’s Salad Bowl” from De­cem­ber through March. As Trump vis­its the bor­der to­day, the har­vest is a re­minder of how lit­tle has changed de­spite heated im­mi­gra­tion rhetoric in Washington.

Trump will in­spect eight pro­to­types for a fu­ture 30-foot bor­der wall that were built in San Diego last fall. He made a “big, beau­ti­ful wall” a cen­ter­piece of his cam­paign and said Mex­ico would pay for it.

But bor­der bar­ri­ers ex­tend the same 654 miles (1,046 kilo­me­ters) they did un­der President Barack Obama and so far Trump hasn’t got­ten Mex­ico or Congress to pay for a new wall.

Trump also pledged to ex­pand the Bor­der Pa­trol by 5,000 agents, but staffing fell dur­ing his first year in of­fice far­ther below a con­gres­sional man­date be­cause the govern­ment has been un­able to keep pace with at­tri­tion and re­tire­ments. There were 19,437 agents at the end of Septem­ber, down from 19,828 a year ear­lier.

In Ti­juana, tens of thou­sands of com­muters still line up week­day morn­ings for San Diego at the nation’s busiest bor­der cross­ing, some for jobs in land­scap­ing, house­keep­ing, ho­tel maids and ship­yard main­te­nance. The vast ma­jor­ity are U.S. cit­i­zens and le­gal res­i­dents or hold­ers of “bor­der cross­ing cards” that are given to mil­lions of Mex­i­cans in bor­der ar­eas for short vis­its. The bor­der cross­ing cards do not in­clude work au­tho­riza­tion but some break the rules.

Even con­cern about Trump’s threat to end the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment is tem­pered by aware­ness that bor­der economies have been in­te­grated for decades. Mex­i­can “maquiladora” plants, which as­sem­ble duty-free raw ma­te­ri­als for ex­port to the U.S., have made tele­vi­sions, med­i­cal sup­plies and other goods since the 1960s.

“How do you sep­a­rate twins that are joined at the hip?” said Paola Avila, chair­woman of the Bor­der Trade Al­liance, a group that in­cludes lo­cal gov­ern­ments and business cham­bers. “Our business re­la­tion­ships will con­tinue to grow re­gard­less of what hap­pens with NAFTA.”

Work­ers in the Mex­i­cali area rise about 1 a.m., car­pool to the bor­der cross­ing and wait about an hour to reach Calexico’s por­tico-cov­ered side­walks by 4 a.m. Some beat the bor­der bot­tle­neck by cross­ing at mid­night to sleep in their cars in Calexico, a city of 40,000 about 120 miles (192 kilo­me­ters) east of San Diego.

Fewer work­ers make the trek now than 20 and 30 years ago. But not be­cause of Trump.

Steve Sca­roni, one of Im­pe­rial Val­ley’s largest la­bor con­trac­tors, blames the drop on lack of in­ter­est among younger Mex­i­cans, which has forced him to rely in­creas­ingly on short-term farm­worker visas known as H-2As.

“We have a say­ing that no one is rais­ing their kids to be farm­work­ers,” said Sca­roni, 55, a third-gen­er­a­tion grower and one of Im­pe­rial Val­ley’s largest la­bor con­trac­tors. Last week, he had two or three buses of work­ers leav­ing Calexico be­fore dawn, com­pared to 15 to 20 buses dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s.

Crop pick­ers at Sca­roni’s Fresh Har­vest Inc. make $13.18 an hour but H-2As bring his cost to $20 to $30 an hour be­cause he must pay for round-trip trans­porta­tion, some­times to south­ern Mex­ico, and hous­ing. The daily bor­der com­muters from Mex­i­cali cost only $16 to $18 af­ter over­head.

Sca­roni’s main ob­jec­tive is to ex­pand the H-2A visa pro­gram, which cov­ered about 165,000 work­ers in 2016. On his an­nual visit to Washington in Fe­bru­ary to meet mem­bers of Congress and other of­fi­cials, he de­cided within two hours that noth­ing changed un­der Trump.

“Washington is not go­ing to fix any­thing,” he said. “You’ve got too many peo­ple - lob­by­ists, politi­cians, at­tor­neys - who make money off the dys­func­tion. They make money off of not solv­ing prob­lems. They just keep talk­ing about it.”

Jose An­gel Valen­zuela, who owns a house in Mex­i­cali and is work­ing his sec­ond har­vest in Im­pe­rial Val­ley, earns more pick­ing cab­bage in an hour than he did in a day at a fac­tory in Mex­ico. He doesn’t pay much at­ten­tion to news and isn’t fol­low­ing de­vel­op­ments on the bor­der wall.

“We’re do­ing very well,” he said as work­ers passed around beef tacos dur­ing a break. “We haven’t seen any no­tice­able change.”

Jack Vessey, whose fam­ily farms about 10,000 acres in Im­pe­rial Val­ley, re­lies on bor­der com­muters for about half of his work­force. Im­pe­rial has only 175,000 peo­ple and Mex­i­cali has about 1 mil­lion, mak­ing Mex­ico an ob­vi­ous la­bor pool.

Vessey, 42, said he has seen no change on the bor­der and doesn’t ex­pect much. He fig­ures 10 per­cent of Congress em­braces open im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies, an­other 10 per­cent op­pose them and the other 80 per­cent don’t want to touch it be­cause their vot­ers are too di­vided.

“It’s like bang­ing your head against the wall,” he said.

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