Poll: Residents would like easier, faster border crossing
YUMA — Stars touch every point in the desert sky when the average field worker slips his feet into his sturdy work boots. Before the sun rises, he climbs into the cab of his truck. Parents are gently nudging their children to wake up for school as he waits behind hundreds of other cars on the Mexico side of the border.
As the sun finally mingles with the horizon, he inches forward. What awaits him is six hours of tiring labor in the Arizona heat. After his hours-long commute, he must plod up and down acres of land and cater to every piece of produce that’s beginning to thrive in the field. He, however, is not alone. He and thousands of others repeat this process in a revolving fashion, and the hardship of border crossing has made border residents more vocal.
In a new poll for Cronkite News, Univision News and The Dallas Morning News, 77 percent of U.S. border residents and 88 percent of Mexican border residents said they favor making it easier to cross back and forth for work. The poll of 1,427 people along the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border also showed that 79 percent of U.S. residents say they depend on Mexico for economic well-being.
Few towns reflect that dependency more than the agricultural town of Yuma, about 180 miles from Phoenix. Here, Mexican workers have long been the backbone of the once thriving agricultural business, which is now experiencing labor shortages.“Yuma county, back in the day, was almost wall-to-wall cotton, and cantaloupe, they were all picked by hand,” said Doug Mellon, a second-generation grower. “When they did away with the Bracero program, I was very concerned as a young child about how we were going to pick the cotton.”
In an attempt to mend a labor shortage during World War II, the Bracero program encouraged the migration of Mexican workers to the fill the gaps created when American workers went to war. The program was ended in 1964 over misuse of documentation and poor worker conditions.
Yuma has a proud history rooted in agriculture. The Yuma Chamber of Commerce says that its agriculture industry depends on three things: Ideal climate, water supply and labor coming from Mexico. However, this labor force is shrinking. Yuma citrus grower Rocky Curtis cites caps, restrictions, and paper processing times as antagonists to a system that’s in desperate need.
According to a 2015 Department of Agriculture report, there are almost 60,000 annual job openings in the agricultural workforce.
Every day more than 20,000 people cross the border from Yuma’s sister city, San Luis. Many cross-border commuters come in through cars and labor shuttles, and more than 6,000 enter on foot. Growers across the country depend on these foreign laborers; in 2009 an estimated 68 percent of crop workers were of Mexican origin, according to the USDA.
Farmers like Mellon see the labor force from Mexico as an integral cog of Yuma’s agricultural industry. Mellon Farms has produced fruits and vegetables in Yuma for more than 40 years. He said he has seen the ups and downs of the agricultural community and its intricate relationship with labor and the southwestern border.
“Ten years from now, 20 years from now, it may be a different story. But for now we need the labor,” said Mellon.
Though the need for labor is evident, the ease of getting labor is quickly disappearing. The largest visa program for employing foreign agricultural workers has an annual cap of 66,000. This limit is too low, said John Boelts, who is also the Arizona Farm Bureau vice president.
“Once or twice a year I go back to Washington, D.C and talk to those folks, and they really have no concept of how short of labor we really are, and how the caps and the immigration programs don’t fit,” said Boelts.
The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, also showed that 47 percent of U.S. border residents believe the federal government does not understand the distinct needs of the border.
Speaking about the poll results, Mellon and Boelts agreed that border farms need a larger flow of legal workers. Residents polled also want daily crossing to get easier, with 80 percent favoring allowing foreign workers to commute daily to work.
Mellon described the typical schedule of a worker on his farm as exhausting because of a combination of border wait times and lack of structure. Mellon has seen workers who rise as early as 3 a.m. Because of long lines and a complex process, workers sometimes don’t arrive to his operation until 7 a.m. during peak season.
The frustration of border wait times is also shared by border residents. Forty-nine percent of U.S poll respondents believe border-crossing times have worsened. While an additional 39 percent of Mexican residents believe the same.
Data from the “Border Wait Times” project from the University of California show San Luis average crossing times ranging from as short as 24 minutes to as long as two hours.
“It gets so crowded because everyone wants to cross all at once. When I used to work here and live [across the border], it would take four hours to cross,” Mario Gonzalez, a former agricultural worker in Yuma, said. “It’s unpredictable.”
Gonzalez has lived a life of duality between the U.S and Mexico border. He resides in Yuma and helps manage a recreational vehicle supply store. He has experienced crossing both for work and visiting family. Gonzalez has seen border travel transform from a simple drive to a journey that affects the surrounding community.
“There’s so many people, down in San Luis. When I first got there, the middle of town was the entrance to the border,” said Gonzalez. “Even if you wanted to just go to McDonald’s, you had to wait an hour just to go to McDonald’s. Or just run through the cars to grab your hamburger and come back.”
Wait times are a concern for both residents and farmers, but one that pales in comparison to the desire for immigration reform. As part of his work with the Arizona Farm Bureau, Boelts has worked to build knowledge around the relationship between the border and agriculture. Boelts would like to see political leaders take action for immigration policies tied around agriculture before any more farms struggle.
“What would be our political gain in denying people who would like to do a honest day’s work for a honest day’s pay?” said Boelts. “Why would we want to deny anybody the opportunity to better themselves?”