Section 2: Calexico to Yuma
Thought we’d have an easy blog entry and then the afternoon happened! It’s always something out here. Particularly in the Imperial Valley, which has totally sucked us in with everything going on. We still had more of the Valley to move through, so we went back to where we’d left off the previous day and continued east. Once again, we were able to leave our packs in the hotel, so we were feeling footloose and fancy free!
Once again we walked along the All American Canal, watching it get bigger and bigger. Strange to see such a torrent of water right in the middle of the desert. As we near the edge of Calexico’s endless agricultural grid, we start to notice an increase in signs of migrant passage. Hwy 98 and Interstate 8 intersect less than a mile away from the border and seems to provide a popular spot to cross.
You can see the footprints made from migrants who exited the river and walked north, to the road and safety. Safety?
Abandoned life vests used to cross the river littered the reeds next to the water, along with the pieces of foam that migrants use to cover their shoes so they don’t leave tracks. Of all the places we’ve seen so far, this definitely looks like one of the better spots to cross. We haven’t seen any border patrol for miles, and you can see the road passing by with 70mph traffic just a short dash away.
Aside from the migrant routes, there wasn’t all too much to report from most of the day. It was a lot of monotonous miles. Easy but monotonous. Near the end of the day, though, a border patrol agent pulled up and rolled down his window. We hadn’t seen anyone all day and we assumed border patrol knew who were at this point. They did, he soon made it apparent, and he was happy to dish out the information. Really nice guy with few unfiltered things to say about his agency.
In just the few days we’ve been out here, we’re really coming to learn more and more about the absurd amount of money at play in border politics. This is nothing new, you always follow the money to get the real scoop, but there’s a lot of money. Illegal money, the money of smuggling, and “legal” money, the money of contracts. Our agent friend had a lot to say on this topic, basically suggesting that this entire area, and all areas along the border, have vast sums of money flowing into them, almost all of which leaves the area immediately.
For example, despite all of the political rhetoric, the actual border patrol agents see very little of the money that’s budgeted for their operations. Apparently, most of it goes to contracts, for uniforms, for guns and ammo, for helicopters, for gear, etc. This agent was on the verge of quitting after working for border patrol for 8 years, because he felt so little care from the government. Long hours, dangerous work, and almost no training for little pay. Many of the border communities have massive corruption problems of their own, and, according to this agent, border patrol was sometimes called upon by local law enforcement to serve as backup, despite the fact that most border patrol agents have no training for police work. He claimed that some local police forces get federal money to collaborate with border patrol in “securing” the border, but this money often vanishes into the hands of elected officials and their friends.
Because so many people living in border communities do not have citizenship, they cannot vote, and corrupt officials are elected who keep the money for their own use. Doesn't this seem crazy?
He also elaborated on where a lot of undocumented folks are coming from, with Asia being a major source. In detail he outlined the route of a migrant moving across the world from Asia; often they fly to Russia first, then Columbia, Costa Rica or Honduras, and finally to Mexico. He claimed that Mexico is very much aware of this problem, but leaves it for the US to deal with. Cartels are paid enormous sums of money to assist with the final stage, between $15,000 and $30,000 per person. We were stunned, whether this was casual speculation or truth. He reiterated a fact we’ve heard before, that our borders are porous, and that our government is very aware of this. This is exactly what James said a couple days ago, and this agent also seemed to think it was all due to money.
Additionally, he echoed a lot of what John, Anita and David had told us the day before. He lives in San Diego and commutes all the way to Imperial Valley for work every day, almost a 2 hour drive, because the quality of life in Imperial Valley is so low. Apparently, a lot of agents do the same.
He suggested that the environment has been poisoned by all of the pollutants and poor air quality. How was he expected to live in that?
When the hay crop is brought in, the fertilizer infused stubble is burned, and all that smoke and pollutants enter the air and the water, with no oversight. Given that a majority of the population either cannot vote or commute from Mexicali, there are very few people able to Invest in the community (which is why John, Anita and David are so needed!)
He had a lot more to say, and we talked for awhile. We’re sorry we’re not able to record more! He had much to say about the border sections that we had ahead of us. He emphasized the laid back mentality of California’s Border Patrol compared to the highly militarized Arizona sector.
We were curious what “highly militarized” meant because weren’t we already seeing this?
He explained it in terms of training; Arizona has rougher terrain and agents are forced to develop a skill set in orienteering, basic survival skills and the use of heavy duty weapons. He briefly recapped a story about his time in Arizona where he followed five smugglers by himself and subdued them by turning into a different person using just his voice. All of a sudden he found himself cussing and shouting and threatening to kill them if they didn’t follow his lead. This transformation was disturbing to him as he valued life and had no desire to take it away.
Basically, he just really felt forgotten by the government, and demoralized in general. We were at first surprised by this, but then not, look how the government treats our military and veterans. It’s not surprising that they would invest so little in the actual people that do the labor, when so much money and power is at stake. After hanging out talking for at least half an hour, the setting sun forced us to get moving. When we told him we were calling a Lyft to pick us up, he seemed skeptical. “I don’t think they’ll come out here” he told us. And he was right.
No luck with the Lyft app. Oops. Time to get a hitchin?
A few cars whizzed by, with obvious disinterest in stopping. A large bus appeared on the horizon, passed by, and at the last moment slowed about 100 feet ahead. We started running. When we got in, the bus was packed back to front with about 30 other people, apparently returning from a day of working in the fields. We were greeted with cheers, shouts of laughter and offers of cold drinks. The driver had no English, and we had no Spanish, but “Calexico?” was universally understood by all and we got on our way.
There were two spots available near the front and we took them. Everyone within talking distance was chatty and friendly, despite the language barrier. There was singing, spontaneous dancing, and laughter the entire way. One of the most fun hitches ever. Tenny sat next to Norma, an outgoing woman with excellent English who translated the jokes and asked questions about our journey. She got a few others engaged, and we got a lot of curiosity and encouragement. She also shared some details about the work they were doing, manual labor for an agricultural company picking cantaloupe, lettuce, celery, and corn, 6 days a week, 9 hours a day, for $10/hr (minimum wage in AZ and CA where they worked).
Minimum wage for manual labor?
Most lived in Mexicali and Calexico and a bus would arrive in the morning at 4am, drive over an hour into Yuma and then back at the end of the day. The work was seasonal and the group of workers changed, with some, like Norma, working there for 6 years, and others only a couple weeks or months. A good amount of the bus were women, and young, which surprised us.
About 15 minutes into the ride, we pulled into an industrial parking lot and a couple of people got out. Norma told us that we weren’t there yet, and they were just getting the checks for the week since it was a Friday. We hung out on the bus for another 10 minutes, then the people that had gotten off returned with a clipboard and stack of checks that they passed out over the next 10 minutes. We could see that the checks were generated by an official payroll system so it seemed almost certain that their paychecks were being taxed. That’s not a lot of money that they’re taking home at the end of the day.
Eventually we made it to a parking lot just north of the border. We got off after thanking Norma, the driver, and our fellow riders profusely. The good cheer of the ride was infectious, and it took awhile for our goofy grins to fade. We weren’t quite at the hotel yet so we called a Lyft to take us the last 20 miles and this time one showed up.
Back at the hotel, Tenny was once again sucked into conversation when she went to use the computer. Ricky (the owner) proudly presented his citizenship papers, which he attained 1 month ago!
What's next? He was currently in the process of applying for a US passport and since it was unnecessarily difficult he asked Tenny for help with some of the translating.
Needless to say, very little website work was done. Instead the evening became yet another lesson on the difficulties a family faces when trying to relocate. The passport procedure demanded absolutely absurd stipulations like: the weight must be .5 lbs or less, include a return envelope, be prepaid, can’t be hand addressed and must have a Fedex label, only Fedex. Also, the label must be in an exact location on the envelope, you have to copy the amendment pages and complete the checklist, and if there are multiple copies of a required document your passport will be “put on hold”. The whole process is silly and seems blatantly designed for failure.