Editor’s Desk — When getting to work is a matter of life and death

We hear a lot about lousy commutes (or at least we did before the pandemic) — an hour-plus one way; endless traffic; subway snafus. We’ve all been there.

But consider the commute that thousands of farmworkers make each day, from November through April, to ensure that you have access to affordable salad greens and other vegetables throughout the winter.

As Esther Honig explains in our latest story, published with The Nation, these workers start lining up soon after midnight in the small Mexican town of San Luis Río Colorado, and wait up to four hours to get through a border crossing that is too small to handle the volume of traffic. They must get across in time to catch the buses that depart at 5:30 a.m. for the produce fields in Yuma County, Arizona. If they miss the buses, they can lose their jobs. Fights are common, as people attempt to cut in line; panicked stampedes, known as “avalanches,” occasionally lead to broken bones and bashed heads.

Photo by Esther Honig

And that was before Covid-19 turned this arduous commute into a matter of life and death.

“The line for the port of entry is effectively a mass gathering of essential workers with zero enforcement of local health guidelines,” Esther writes. “Mask use is spotty; people crowd together to prevent anyone from cutting in front of them; and no one is taking anyone’s temperature.”

Arizona officials, which in January had the highest rates of Covid in the world, ignored pleas from advocates to establish guidelines to protect these essential workers.

“[T]he 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,” Esther writes. But given that they can make twice as much in a day picking vegetables in Yuma as they can in a week working in Mexico, there really is no choice.

The story of farmworkers and the virus has been a major focus for FERN over the last year, starting with the first story we published on the issue (also by Esther), on March 17, 2020, about the U.S.’s decision to close its consulates in Mexico, threatening a critical pipeline of agricultural labor. And we will continue to follow the story as a new growing season unfolds, with the virus still very much a threat.

As always, your support makes these ambitious stories possible. Esther spent seven days at the border — in the middle of the pandemic — talking to workers and even managing to visit one of the lettuce fields. The story she came back with is important, but it also is rich with detail, full of people who are more than just a quote. It’s the kind of journalism FERN was created to do.