Farmworkers face a life-and-death commute to Arizona’s lettuce fields

Every day, from November through April, thousands of men and women wait hours to pass through a congested border crossing on their way to pick produce in Yuma County. If they don't get across in time, they risk losing their jobs. Fights and stampedes are common. Now, Covid-19 has turned a dangerous commute into a potentially deadly one.

It’s one in the morning and the stars are out as hundreds of people shuffle slowly along the wall that marks the U.S. border in the small Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado. In heavy boots and wide-brimmed straw hats, most everyone here is headed to work in the vegetable fields of Yuma County, Arizona. Bundled against the frigid November air in puffy coats and fleece blankets, they carry thermoses of hot coffee and mini coolers packed with breakfast and lunch, often small, tightly rolled meat burritos. The wait to get through the small port of entry averages two hours and on some days can take as long as four.

Every winter, as farms in the northern United States go dormant, Arizona’s agricultural season comes to life. Yuma County, known as the nation’s winter salad bowl, produces melons, broccoli, and 90 percent of the leafy greens consumed during the colder months in the U.S. From November until late April, between 8,000 and 10,000 people, according to one estimate, cross the border daily, spending seven hours or more traveling from their homes in Mexico to work in Yuma’s fields. Some are foreign guest workers who come on a special visa; others have green cards or dual citizenship but choose to live in Mexico, whether because it’s cheaper or because they have a family with mixed immigration status. These commuters make up around a quarter of the estimated 38,000 farmworkers who shoulder Yuma County’s $3 billion agricultural industry.

This past year, the pandemic turned an already difficult commute into a hazardous and potentially deadly endeavor. The line for the port of entry is effectively a mass gathering of essential workers with zero enforcement of local health guidelines. Mask use is spotty; people crowd together to prevent anyone from cutting in front of them; and no one is taking anyone’s temperature.

Workers wait in line at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis Rio Colorado. They start gathering soon after midnight, hoping to get across in time to catch the buses at 5:30 a.m. that will take them to the lettuce fields in Arizona. If they miss the buses, they could lose their job.

On the U.S. side of the border, the situation is hardly any better. In early December, several worker advocacy groups urged officials in Arizona to mandate that employers promote basic Covid safety measures, like social distancing and better ventilation in packing houses and on the buses that carry workers to the fields. Yet as of April, neither Yuma County nor the state had issued any guidelines, let alone mandates, for protecting farmworkers. Instead, Yuma County officials said they suggest that employers follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite the evident risks, there has been no serious attempt to monitor the toll the virus has taken on the farmworker population. Arizona does not track cases among farmworkers, and testing in Mexico is severely limited. But what is known is troubling. Over the past year, outbreaks of Covid-19 have closely followed the harvest of labor-intensive crops—meaning anything that must be picked by hand. Yuma itself has been hard-hit. In mid-January, Arizona had the highest rate of Covid-19 infections in the world, and Yuma County had some of the worst outbreaks in the state. Even as infections have been trending down since the start of the year, the county currently has the highest number of cases per capita. Its only hospital has been overwhelmed, at times running out of ICU beds.

Still, farmworkers have continued to make the commute, rising impossibly early each day to cross the border. Like many others in line this morning, Manuel, who is in his late 20s, is headed to work in the lettuce fields. (This isn’t his real name. We’re protecting his identity because he could lose his job for talking to a reporter.) He stands eagerly with his thumbs tucked behind the straps of his backpack, a black face mask concealing a wide smile. Each day, Manuel wakes up at midnight after around four hours of sleep and slips out the door of his small apartment with an empty stomach. He takes a taxi to the border—at that hour there are no public buses, and walking is too dangerous—and arrives at the line by 1 a.m., which gives him a good shot at making it across in time to catch the bus to the fields. “It’s worth it,” he says of his commute. “You can make pretty good money.”

Once Manuel and the others are in Arizona, a fleet of white school buses will drive them to the day’s work site, which can be up to two hours away. Group transportation has emerged as a potent vector for infection, yet the safeguards provided by employers vary widely. Most buses have limited the number of passengers to give each worker his or her own seat; some have hung plastic sheets between rows. Some drivers enforce the use of face masks; others do not. Without oversight from state or county officials, the level of protection depends on the company.

Manuel, an H-2A worker who asked that we not use his real name, waits in line at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is his second year picking lettuce in Yuma County, where he earns close to $13 an hour and can make more in one day than he can in a week as a locksmith in Mexico.

The potential exposures workers face are compounded by the fact that most lack easy access to medical care, and paid sick leave is almost unheard of. A study last year by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that farmworkers in the Salinas Valley, one of the nation’s leading agricultural regions, had more than twice the rate of infection compared with the state population. This was due in part to the fact that many people came to work while sick because they felt pressured by their employers or because they couldn’t afford to miss work. Instead of isolating, they were side by side with co-workers, sharing rides to and from the fields, using the same tiny portable bathroom, even sharing lunches.

Manuel, like many younger workers in line, says he isn’t too concerned about getting the virus. “I’m worried that my parents will catch it,” he says. “But we just take care of ourselves.”

Still, the risks from the virus are real, and all farmworkers must weigh them against the prospect of losing their jobs and not being able to make rent or buy groceries. It’s a lose-lose choice forced on them by the failure of the United States to develop a humane and realistic immigration policy, one that acknowledges the essential role this vulnerable workforce plays in keeping our food prices low and our grocery stores well-stocked.

For guest workers like Manuel, whose visas are tied to their jobs, the stakes are even higher. If he loses his job, he will likely lose his visa and possibly his opportunity to get one next season. “No matter how you’re doing—if you have a headache, your back or legs ache—you have to get up,” he says.

 

Originally from the state of Sinaloa, Manuel and his family moved to San Luis Río Colorado when he was 12. He spent his teenage years in this border town surrounded by people who moved effortlessly across the international boundary, working in Arizona fields, shopping in American malls, and visiting family in the U.S. For most of Manuel’s life, the border represented an enticing opportunity, but without money or family on the other side, he had no legal means of accessing it.

After graduating from high school, Manuel became a locksmith. Then, in 2018, a friend recommended him to an employer in Arizona. That’s how most H-2A visas happen: A farmer needs more guest workers and asks a trusted employee for recommendations. Just like that, Manuel became one of the thousands who cross the border each day. This is his second season harvesting lettuce in Yuma County on an H-2A visa. He keeps the small slip of paper folded into his passport and guards it as though it were made of gold.

In Arizona, Manuel is paid close to $13 an hour, earning more in one day than he can in a week as a locksmith in Mexico. Those wages have made it possible for him to build a house and give his children a middle-class quality of life. He is separated from their mother, but every Sunday, his only day off each week, he takes his children to eat pizza, and sometimes they go fishing at a nearby lake. “Being a dad is a lot of responsibility,” he says. “You worry about [your kids’] needs: Are they missing this, are they missing that?”

In the off-season, Manuel still works as a locksmith, and he hopes to start his own business someday with the money saved from his H-2A job. He says he can’t keep picking lettuce much longer, maybe just two more years. “There are so many sleepless nights, hours of sleep that you’ll never get back,” he says. “And the work wreaks havoc on your body.”

 

There have been guest workers like Manuel harvesting food in the United States since World War I. The H-2A visa, the latest incarnation of this country’s temporary worker program, was created in 1986, at the height of the Reagan era, as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. While the law granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented people, it was sold as a crackdown on undocumented immigrants. It mandated stricter border security and penalties for hiring anyone without authorization to work in the country. But to get the necessary votes in Congress, the bill needed support from American farmers, who, just as today, relied heavily on an undocumented workforce. The H-2A visa was offered as a bargaining chip. It created a new category of guest workers specifically for seasonal agriculture and gave growers an assurance that they’d have a reliable source of labor, even as the government worked to curtail undocumented immigration. This is also why it became the only guest worker visa with no annual limit.

In the past two decades, reliance on the H-2A visa has increased dramatically as the number of farmworkers who live in the United States, of which about half are undocumented, has declined. Last year, there were more than 213,000 H-2A workers, mostly from Mexico. Around 6,500 were sent to Yuma County, one of the main destinations for H-2A workers. That’s still just a sliver of the estimated 1.4 million full-time farmworkers in the country, but in the past 14 years, the number of jobs filled by H-2A visa holders has increased fivefold. Even amid a pandemic and historic levels of unemployment, jobs filled by H-2A workers increased 7 percent in 2020.

As president, Donald Trump embraced the visa, using it to bolster his support in the agricultural industry even as he pushed anti-immigrant policies. In a speech he gave in 2019 to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s biggest farm lobbying group, he assured a cheering crowd that he’d make H-2A visas easier to use so that farmers could get the immigrant workers they needed, before adding, “We’re keeping the wrong ones out, OK?” Last March, as the pandemic became undeniable and Trump rushed to close America’s borders, routine visa services were suspended worldwide. One of the only exceptions was the H-2A, which was deemed “mission critical” and processed in droves by partially shuttered consulates. Farmers pushed for the exemption, claiming that the nation’s food system would collapse if their guest workers were not allowed in.

Still, even as H-2A workers were being heralded as heroes for keeping food on grocery store shelves, the Trump administration froze their wages for two years. (H-2A workers are paid between $11.81 and $16.34 an hour, depending on the state. On average, their wages are 57-percent higher than state minimum wages.) The freeze, lobbied for by growers, would have cost workers an estimated $1.6 billion over 10 years. But it was challenged by labor groups and eventually struck down by a federal judge.

Now President Biden has vowed to overhaul the immigration system. He is backing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would provide legal status to more than 1 million undocumented farmworkers. Anyone who has worked in agriculture for at least 180 days in the past two years would be eligible for “certified agricultural worker” status, helping to bring these undocumented workers out of the shadows. Those who have been working for less than 10 years would also be eligible for a green card after an additional eight years of agricultural work and payment of a $1,000 fine for breaking immigration law. In an attempt to win conservative backing, the bill would strengthen immigration enforcement and expand the H-2A program, permitting an additional 20,000 workers each year to fill year-round agricultural positions in industries, such as dairy and meatpacking, that have until now been excluded. The legislation passed the House with bipartisan support but faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where a similar proposal was defeated three years ago.

 

By 2:30 a.m., Manuel has been waiting for over an hour and is about a block from the metal turnstiles that mark the entrance to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) building. As the morning marches on, the line grows longer. Masks casually slip below noses as people peer over the shoulders in front of them. Those who have arrived late search for a spot to cut in line. To ward them off, people squeeze even closer together.

At times, this restlessness can swell into a collective panic. Along the line there’s a phenomenon known as an “avalanche,” in which people rush the turnstiles in a last-ditch effort to get across the border and not miss work. So far, Manuel has been in two avalanches. “I had to run when I heard the people at the back start to scream ‘Avalanche!’” he says. “The most dangerous thing in that moment is to fall over and be trampled.”

Workers told me the experience can be especially traumatic for women, who are sometimes groped by men exploiting the situation. The elderly and children are often injured, their heads busted open or ribs bruised from falls or trampling. When there’s an avalanche, CBP shuts down the portal for up to an hour and calls in the Mexican Army to restore order. Almost everyone in line misses work.

Juan Carlos Palacios, a mayordomo, or supervisor, who recruits workers for the lettuce fields, says the problem of avalanches wouldn’t exist if the border facility were better managed. “They’re harming agriculture here in the valley with their slowness and their insufficient staffing,” he told me.

Juan Carlos Palacios is a mayordomo, or overseer, who recruits workers for the day as they cross the border into the U.S. He says the border facility at San Luis, Arizona, is insufficient for the volume of people and vehicles who pass through it each day, and that this hurts the region’s agriculture industry and puts farmworkers at risk for injury or worse.

John Schwamm, the CBP area port director who oversees the San Luis, Arizona, facility, doesn’t dispute that processing moves too slowly here. But he says the problem this year isn’t staffing or even
funding—rather, it’s Covid-19. Social distancing requirements limit the number of agents who can work in the building at one time, he explained. As a result, only five of the 10 processing lanes are currently staffed. Farmworkers told me it’s often fewer.

Schwamm says that congestion was an issue long before the arrival of the coronavirus. This is the only port of entry in the area that processes pedestrians, and on the Mexican side there’s just a single narrow sidewalk leading into the CBP facility. Even now, as travel restrictions to the U.S. have cut traffic by around 30 percent, San Luis is still the busiest port in Arizona, processing 1.8 million pedestrians and 2.2 million noncommercial vehicles in 2020. This is a direct result of the region’s booming agricultural industry, Schwamm says.

During the growing season, he estimates, farmworkers add about 30 percent to total daily crossings. As Yuma County’s agricultural industry has grown, the demand for labor has grown too—a trend that is expected to continue, further straining an already congested system.

In the past 13 years, the building at San Luis that processes foot traffic has been expanded three times to accommodate the growing number of pedestrians. Most recently, in 2018, a new $6-million building was built with the intention of reducing wait times. A modern single-story structure, it has floor-to-ceiling windows and an airy, zigzagging roof inspired by the grooved crop rows in the nearby fields. But according to Schwamm, demand has already outpaced the new capacity.

“I understand the issue; it’s crystal clear to me, and I do everything in my power that I can,” he says. “But the problem is infrastructure.”

Schwamm has lived in Arizona all his life and has spent the past 36 years working for the CBP. He’s seen the line here grow exponentially over the last decade. He’s seen the avalanches. And he knows about the fights that break out almost daily over people cutting in line. But he says his agents can’t intervene. As a U.S. agency, he says, there’s little the CBP can do to control the chaos in the line, because it’s on the Mexican side of the border.

One reason so much strain has fallen on San Luis is that the H-2A visa works a bit differently here than in the rest of the country. Technically, the visa allows for a single entry, meaning a guest worker is permitted to cross into the U.S. before continuing on to a farm in Washington State or Florida, where they would remain for the duration of the contract. But along the border, according to Schwamm, the CBP has a special agreement with local employers that allows their H-2A workers to enter the U.S. and return to Mexico daily. It’s an added benefit for the employers, who don’t have to pay for worker housing, one of the costliest requirements of the visa. But it also ensures that throngs of people will continue passing through Schwamm’s overmatched facility.

Many H-2A workers I spoke to, including Manuel, say they prefer this setup, because it allows them to see their family at night and eat a home-cooked meal. There’s also a lot of skepticism about the employer-provided housing, which H-2A workers commonly complain is overcrowded and unsanitary. Four years ago, an employer in Phoenix, G Farms LLC, was found to have 69 guest workers living in an encampment consisting of old school buses, truck trailers, and a shed. With daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the “housing” lacked proper ventilation and had exposed electrical wires and gas lines that investigators deemed “life threatening.” Still, G Farms LLC, which was tied to several prior cases of abuse and fraud within the guest worker program, received no fine, just an order to comply with regulations.

Employers have also been known to impose curfews, prohibit guests, and limit how often workers can leave the premises. Manuel says he’d hate to give up access to his truck and the ability to do what he pleases once he’s off the clock. “The truth is that I prefer to be here [in Mexico] because I feel freer,” he says. “Over there, you just have work. Here, you have family and friends.”

 

It is nearly 4:30 a.m. when Manuel has finally passed through customs into the tiny border town of San Luis. The main street resembles a bustling night market, with hundreds of farmworkers milling about. Lines radiate from food trucks blaring brassy banda music and selling a cheap breakfast of tamales and instant coffee.

People sit together and talk as they wait for the buses to arrive around 5:30 a.m. They gather on the curb in front of the 24-hour gas station or beneath the golden arches of the local McDonald’s. The chatter includes a healthy dose of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus—that planes fly over cities at night to spray people with the virus, for instance, or that it was invented by the Mexican government so it wouldn’t have to pay senior citizens their pensions. “They’re weeding them out,” one worker tells me. “My grandmother walked into a hospital and she left in a box.”

Others choose to catch up on sleep, stretching out on a park bench or on a sliver of sidewalk beneath a lit awning. Some farms send their buses early so workers can climb aboard and sleep.

Many, like 71-year-old José Luna, come prepared with their own blanket. “This is the time when I should be laying down to get a bit of rest. But look at where I am,” he says, gesturing at the buses and trucks rattling past, spewing exhaust. “This is bad for you.”

Once across the border, workers line up to grab a quick breakfast from one of the many food trucks serving cheap burritos and instant coffee along main street in San Luis. Then they sit and talk, or try to sleep, until the buses arrive to take them to the fields.

Luna, sporting a long gray mustache and brown leather boots, sits on a bench, his blanket draped across his shoulders. He had crossed over at 10 p.m., nearly eight hours before work, when the wait in line was only 30 minutes. He says he does this because his joints can’t handle standing for long hours. Once across, he finds a spot to sleep.

Luna is emblematic of the aging domestic agricultural workforce. Like him, many are foreign-born but have green cards or citizenship, recipients of Reagan’s 1986 amnesty. In their younger years, they followed the harvests across the country, traveling from state to state. Now they’ve settled down, working in Yuma County and living in Mexico, where their U.S. wages afford them more.

This work is all Luna has ever known. Born to a family of subsistence farmers, his formal education ended after the first grade, when he was pulled out of school to help his family grow corn. He likely entered the U.S. without permission in 1969, when he was 19, “in search of food” and to find work in agriculture.

These older farmworkers face a significantly higher risk from the coronavirus, yet they continue going to the fields out of economic necessity. Most everyone knows at least one person who has died from Covid-19. As 66-year-old Víctor Manuel Hernández told me, “It’s not strange anymore when they tell you what’s-his-name is dead. It’s normal.”

What scares Luna is that many of his younger co-workers seem unconcerned about the virus. They assume that even if they get sick, they’ll recover. So while Luna avoids large gatherings, he knows other workers are still going to parties or bars on the weekends. He says that thought crosses his mind every morning as he climbs into the work bus. “With the colder weather, all the bus windows are closed, and the virus is inside,” he says.

Over the years, this work has twisted Luna’s bones and worn out his joints. But he’s convinced that the hard labor is good for him. He says he can’t stand sitting around at home and repeats a popular saying in Spanish: “En la cama, uno se acaba.” In the bed, one ends.

 

By 7 a.m., Manuel has finally arrived at the field. The bright green rows of lettuce are striking against the dry desert landscape. Banda music belts from a portable radio as Manuel and the other workers walk the rows, using short, flat knives to slice the heads of romaine from their stalks. Loose leaves are discarded and the heads tossed into plastic bags. The bags are then passed to a line of workers standing on a long, elevated platform that’s pulled slowly behind a tractor as they wedge the bags into cardboard boxes.

Once Manuel and his crew have cut and packaged some 11,500 heads of lettuce, typically between 9 and 10 a.m., they’re allowed a 15-minute break for breakfast, which they take together on the bus. Then it’s back to work.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, temperatures quickly climb into the 80s. Before the pandemic, most of the workers wore beard nets to protect the produce from stray hairs. Now they wear face masks to protect one another from the virus. Manuel says the masks get soaked with sweat and stick to your face. Sometimes it feels like he can’t catch his breath, but the supervisor yells at anyone who removes their mask.

In the lettuce fields, no one knows exactly when the workday will end. It can be anytime between 3 and 6 p.m., depending on the size and the number of orders the crew is required to fill that day. Once the field is sufficiently cleared, Manuel and the other workers are allowed back onto the bus. His hands aching and his boots caked in dark soil, he checks his phone to see if his kids have messaged him. As the bus pulls away, he stares out the window, which is open to let in the breeze, and starts to plan dinner in his head.

Back in San Luis, the air is cooling as evening sets in. The workers don sweaters and jackets as they walk down the main street toward the border. The line to cross back into Mexico is never quite as long.

Lead image: Workers digging weeds in a lettuce field in Yuma County, Arizona. Every winter, as farms in the northern United States go dormant, the state’s agricultural season comes to life. Yuma County, known as the nation’s winter salad bowl, produces melons, broccoli, and 90 percent of the leafy greens consumed during the colder months in the U.S. From November until late April, between 8,000 and 10,000 people, according to one estimate, cross the border daily, spending seven hours or more traveling from their homes in Mexico to work in Yuma’s fields.

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