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For Mexican workers, journey to Arizona fields an epic one

By Alyson Zepeda
Cronkite News Service

SAN LUIS – The sun won’t come up for another few hours, but Miguel Gonzalez’s day began not long after midnight, when he made his lunch and then made his way to the port of entry here with other residents of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora.

buses-inside.jpgBecause of the long line, it usually takes between two and three hours to get through, and he can’t afford to be late for a bus that that leaves at 5:30 a.m. to take him and other seasonal workers to a farm field near Yuma.

Dozens of white buses line up every morning, waiting to transport workers to fields around Yuma County.
(Cronkite News Service Photo by Alyson Zepeda)

So he usually winds up waiting in the chill, grabbing coffee and a quick breakfast at one of several food trucks that set up near the port.

“We have to wait here until one has to go work,” he said in Spanish. “And if there’s hail we have to wait even longer.”

Marisol Sandoval, heading to a job planting cantaloupe, said she wakes up at about 1 a.m. just to cross the border in time for her bus.

“There is a lot of line, and sometimes you don’t even have enough time to cross,” she said in Spanish.

Food trucks sell tacos and breakfast burritos to the waiting workers, and coffee is in high demand. Some laborers bring blankets and curl up on the sidewalk to sleep.

The busiest time for the port of entry here is between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., when more than 1,500 workers cross the border, said Teresa Small, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Immigration Services in San Luis. Even with all six pedestrian stations open at the port of entry, Small said, the line gets long.

“The process that it takes for them to come through is not a long one, but when we are multiplying it by hundreds of people, it does multiply in time,” she said.

Most seasonal workers are legal permanent residents, while some are guest workers or U.S. citizens.

Dozens of white buses take workers to the fields, with trips sometimes taking more than an hour. For Maguy Hernandez, the next eight hours are spent picking and washing lettuce.

“I sleep very little – maybe four or five hours,” she said in Spanish. “You don’t get enough rest.”

For the agricultural industry in Yuma County, the workers who cross every day from the beginning of winter until early spring are absolutely critical, said Charles Sanchez, director of University of Arizona’s Yuma Agricultural Center. Pay for the workers begins at minimum wage but can be higher based on an individual’s skills.

“There’s not enough U.S. citizens to do that work,” he said, “so there wouldn’t be enough laborers to harvest and plant the crops.”

This time of year is especially busy, Sanchez said, because there is an overlap in the harvest cold-weather vegetables and the planting of summer crops.

Hernandez said the 40 hours of work she gets here each week is critical for her as well. Working in Mexico, she said, she can only make about $70 per week.

“Here, even if you work in the fields, you can earn a little bit more,” she said.

Gonzalez said he arrives back in San Luis around 6 p.m. and begins the much shorter process of returning to Mexico. By the time he arrives at home, he only has a few hours before he has to start all over again.

“To go back to Mexico is easy, but to come in is hard,” he said.

Seasonal farm workers around Yuma
More than 1,500 workers cross the border at San Luis between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. during the winter growing season.

In Yuma County, most farm laborers work between December and early April.

Most seasonal workers are legal permanent residents, but some are guest workers or U.S. citizens.

In March, workers harvest broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and celery and plant melons.

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