Long lines at San Luis port hard on Mexican workers

Baseball field in Friendship Park six years after being reclaimed by the federal government. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/Arizona Sonora News
Baseball field in Friendship Park six years after being reclaimed by the federal government, filled only by a green dumpster. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/Arizona Sonora News

SAN LUIS — Friendship Park sits abandoned and rusting. This park, where children used to play baseball and families filled picnic tables, will either be the answer to a daily human traffic jam, or will continue to represent a failure at the San Luis port of entry near Yuma.

Friendship Park, a name that suggests happy, amicable relationships, was reclaimed by the federal government in 2010 to ease the flow of growing traffic through the port of entry. The park goes right up to the border with Mexico, just a short distance from vast fields of crops that are currently producing about 90 percent of the United States’ leafy vegetables.

The demand for workers in the fields is causing hours-long lines at the San Luis port of entry that begin forming as early as 1 a.m. during the agricultural seasons, when fieldwork begins at 5 or 6 a.m., said Nancy Salazar, a fieldworker in San Luis for more than 20 years.

Traci Madison, a regional public affairs officer for the General Services Administration, reported that the longest wait times at the port can be about two hours during the busy seasons.

Nancy Salazar returning to her home in San Luis after a full day packing Lettuce. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/Arizona Sonora News
Nancy Salazar returning to her home in San Luis after a full day packing Lettuce. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/Arizona Sonora News

Anywhere from 6,500 to 8,500 pedestrians, many of them fieldworkers in Yuma, pass through the port of entry every day and will continue to do so until the agricultural season ends in May, said Annica Zacarias, a Supervisory Customs and Border Protections Officer.

“The current pedestrian facility was built in 1982 and cannot accommodate the current volume, security and technology needs of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” said Madison.

The impossibly long line described by Salazar means that some Mexican workers will spend up to four hours waiting on foot before their full day of physical labor harvesting melons, lettuce, cauliflower and the majority of Arizona’s crops.

The Mexican workers “park their cars on the other side, so they can walk across,” said Border Patrol Agent Marcus Ortega. Driving a car used to be the longer method to cross the border because of the security checks, but now even walking across can take longer than an hour.

Salazar, a lettuce sorter with Foothill Packing, said that many of her fellow workers from Mexico try to get what little sleep they can on the buses that transport the fieldworkers from the port in San Luis to their employers in and around Yuma.

Some residents in San Luis reported workers sleeping overnight on empty benches, or in empty parks such as Friendship, to avoid the long lines that awaiting them early on the other side.

San Luis Police Sgt. Marco Santana said his office had not heard of any problems with workers sleeping in public, but residents such as Ernesto Rivera described sleeping workers bundled up on benches outside of Circle K, despite homes and families that wait only a few fences away.

Ortega, whose green and white Border Patrol truck sat right outside of the deteriorating Friendship Park, said workers continue to sleep in the park even after it closed.

Border Patrol Truck of Marcus Ortega overlooking the border fences and Friendship Park. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/Arizona Sonora News
Border Patrol Truck of Marcus Ortega overlooking the border fences and Friendship Park. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/Arizona Sonora News

Rivera’s brother, Rodrigo, walks across the border every day into San Luis, where he parks his car at his brother’s house. Because Rodrigo Rivera works at Kentucky Fried Chicken, he does not have to stand in the early-morning lines with the fieldworkers, although even his waiting times have increased since the agricultural off-season.

What was a 15-minute wait during the summer for Rodrigo Rivera, is between a 45 minute to an hour wait now, in the middle of the winter agricultural season, which begins in October and ends in May.

Rodrigo Rivera, whose wife and daughter remain in Mexico unable to receive U.S. citizenship, said he has seen “the craziest things, things you wouldn’t believe,” waiting at the port of entry.

Tensions in the long, early line run so high that he said he once saw a man stabbed while trying to cut in line.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents do what they can to facilitate the increasing number of workers who use the San Luis port every day, Zacarias explained. New technologies are implemented, additional personnel are allocated during the agricultural season and construction projects are planned to ease the process.

In June, construction in San Luis to help the flow of workers back into Mexico was completed on-schedule and on-budget, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Fieldworkers returning to Mexico through the San Luis port of entry. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/ Arizona Sonora News
Fieldworkers returning to Mexico through the San Luis port of entry. Photo by: Ashley McGowan/ Arizona Sonora News

A future expansion project will take place in the form of a new pedestrian annex that aims to, “reduce wait times during the peak travel times,” and, “achieve adequate capacity to handle traffic through 2025 and allow for future capacity expansion,” said Madison.

The small project is fully funded and the GSA will “proceed with hiring a contractor this summer” reported Madison.

Santana, who has worked for the San Luis Police Department for 13 years, doubts the expected improvements at the port will have a big impact because “we still have the same amount of people … (but) if they had more lines opening over there, maybe that would help.”

As for fieldworkers such as Salazar, whose back aches from decades of laboring over fruits and vegetables for America’s dinner tables, and especially those who wake up early enough to stand in line for hours, the lifestyle “makes them old before their time,” said Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez an Arizona State University professor of Transborder Studies.

“Mexicans in general, on either side of the border, are majorly creative and adaptive to changing situations,” Vélez-Ibáñez explained, regardless of long lines and hard labor “they live wholesome lives,” and focus on “maintaining familial stability.”

No matter the hardships of the workweek, “on a Saturday or a Sunday they will have some ritual event for their whole family,” said Vélez-Ibáñez, but for all the work and all the waiting, “there is a price to be paid.”

Ashley McGowan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the school of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at ashleymcgowan@email.arizona.edu.

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