For thousands of farmworkers, a dangerous — and now potentially deadly — commute

It’s 1 a.m. and the stars are out as hundreds of people shuffle slowly along the wall that forms the border with the U.S. in the small Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado. In heavy boots and wide-brimmed straw hats, almost 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 but on some days can take as many 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 guestworkers who come on a special visa; others have green cards or dual citizenship but choose to live in Mexico, maybe 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 the work in Yuma County’s $3 billion agriculture industry.

This year, the pandemic turned this 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.