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Migrant Program Profits Both Sides of Border

By Sara A. Fajardo

During harvest time, mornings are never quiet along the steel and cement fence that divides San Luis, Mexico, from San Luis, Arizona. Lettuce covers vast fields that merge with the horizon. It must be picked.

Workers harvest butterhead lettuce in Yuma, Arizona.

A group of Mexican agricultural workers—both domestic and guest workers—harvest butter leaf lettuce in Yuma, Arizona. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

At the height of the season, Yuma, Arizona provides the nation with 90 percent of its lettuce. A shortage of ready field hands has created an opportunity for those willing to make the daily trek from one country to the other. Lured by wages up to 10 times the standard in their towns and cities, thousands of Mexican nationals—passports in hand—join in on the predawn border crossing ritual, stepping through the U.S. customs building and onto U.S. soil.

In the 3 a.m. bustle of 20 block-deep lines of bleary-eyed workers stands Janine Duron, calling out names. Duron is executive director of CITA (Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agrícolas or Independent Agricultural Workers' Center). "Jesús Cubillas," she says, and a young man steps forward to receive his passport. The 28-year-old pharmacist by trade opens the green official document and looks at the red-and-blue visa emblazoned with H-2A, the designation for agricultural guest worker.

The U.S. government started the guest worker program to help alleviate farm labor scarcity by supplementing the readily available domestic work force with temporary employees from countries such as Mexico. Once farm labor contractors have depleted the local work force, they can petition the U.S. government to bring in legal temporary help to cultivate and harvest their fields.

Poverty or Possibilities

Duron calls another name, then another, 42 in all on this particular morning. One by one the would-be field hands, wearing sturdy work boots, sun-shielding caps and ready-for-hard-labor jeans, collect their official documents. Each one pauses to stare at the acronym, H-2A, three seemingly innocuous symbols, that for many mark the difference between a life of poverty and one of possibilities.

Catholic Relief Services initiated a project called Manos Unidas (United Hands) with the collaboration of both the Tucson and Mexicali dioceses, and created CITA as a binational nonprofit organization. CITA helped 700 workers get visas in 2007, and another 800 in 2008. A matchmaker of sorts, CITA helps pair Mexican job seekers with U.S. growers. Publicized entirely by word of mouth, its small cinder-block office in downtown San Luis, Mexico, enrolled more than 10,000 possible job candidates in less than a year.

Photographs of workers in the field and hand-cut letters that spell out "You are Important" and "Thank you for your hard work" line the office's blue and white wall.

José Alberto Cota loads boxes of butter leaf lettuce.

Guest worker visa holder, José Alberto Cota, 25, loads boxes of butter leaf lettuce in the fields of Yuma, Arizona. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

"CITA's designed to help raise the standard of living and working in agriculture for both workers and their employers," says Duron. It's a philosophy that colors every aspect of CITA's work. Potential job candidates are taught their rights and responsibilities as workers, receive job training and medical screening, and are consistently reminded of their great worth as human beings and employees.

The cost of applying for a visa is a prohibitive $400, and so CITA offers small no-interest loans to the poorest of the poor in order to give them the opportunity to lift themselves from poverty. Once the candidates are screened for criminal records and other red flags that would make attaining a visa impossible, CITA officials escort the number of requested workers to the U.S. consulate to go through the laborious visa application process. Two days later, Duron and other CITA workers are once again at the border, at 3 a.m., handing out the coveted visas under the flickering orange glow of Mexican city streetlights, before they escort the laborers to their new jobs.

'Worth It'

Each worker has been prepared for the sacrifices of the daily trek to the border: long hours of standing in line, longer days of working in all weather conditions—rain, wind, high dry sun, and clinging mud that lines the endless rows of butter leaf, endive, romaine, red leaf and iceberg lettuce. The workweeks that await them often span all seven days, and weave themselves into late hours and early morning start times.

For Cubillas, the sacrifices are a small price to pay in order to provide a better life for his family. Like many young Mexican professionals, he had a hard time making ends meet with the meager wages he earned at the pharmacy. A wife and new baby stretched his paycheck past its already constrained limits. "We work three times as hard in the U.S.," says Cubillas of fieldwork, "but we also earn three times the pay. That makes it worth it."

It's 8 a.m. and contractor José Carlos Gómez, 38, is surveying his fields. In the distance, 22 workers move in rhythmic waves of bending, cutting, picking and tossing heads of lettuce into boxes. A few feet ahead of them a truck designed to expedite produce packing extends its elongated bed. Its pulley system moves like the wings of a Wright brothers plane. It's Gómez's second year with CITA, an organization he credits for helping to improve his business by providing a loyal and consistent work force. This year, after he'd filled his payroll with all the domestic workers he could find, he contracted 82 CITA H-2A holders. Next year he hopes to employ more.

Mexican contractor José Carlos Gómez has hired several H-2A guest agricultural workers.

Mexican contractor José Carlos Gómez has hired several H-2A guest agricultural workers through the Catholic Relief Services-sponsored CITA to help him harvest lettuce in Arizona. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

One of CITA's strong suits is that it aims to represent both employer and employee, serving as a go-between to ensure that everyone's needs are met. Mediation between the parties is a free but rarely needed service that CITA provides. Workers arrive trained and ready to work.

'Things Are Much Better Now'

In the past Gómez struggled to get all of his crops out of the ground and into the market. A consistent work force was unimaginable. Day laborers waited in parking lots and chose which field to work based on which contractor was offering the highest wages for the day. The payroll was a disaster: 30 workers would come one day, 30 others the next. By the end of the harvest he'd have a mountain of over 2,000 W-2 forms to sort through and more of the same to look forward to the following year.

With the introduction of CITA H-2A workers, Gómez says that the overall standard of work has improved. Some domestic workers see the consistency of the H-2A workers and feel compelled to improve the quality of their own work.

"Things are much better now," says Gómez, "because workers come to work now. We avoid so many problems. The fields are harvested. We never lose crops because of a shortage of labor."

CITA representatives routinely check the fields to ensure that employee-employer relationships are running smoothly. They've seen a marked improvement in how each one perceives the other.

"There are days these people don't eat," says Gómez, "there are so many families like that. One needs to go and see to really value our own good fortune. One gets locked in their own world and they forget about the other side. We spend $100 on nothing, when people don't even have 100 pesos for food."

Small Triumphs

"Luis B Sanchez," also known as "Village at Kilometer 57," is a town made up of simple concrete-block houses, brightly painted mobile homes, and a whole district of plywood and tarpaper structures. Here the changes H-2A has brought are measured in small, invisible triumphs: bills paid, debts settled, food purchased, electricity and water reinstated.

María Refugio Váldez López, 41, received a CITA loan to purchase her visa and has transformed her life as a result. The single mother is the sole breadwinner for an extended family of nine. Once living beyond her means, after settling her debts, she now has been able to save enough to add an extra room to her two-room home. The children will have more space to roam, they'll have a small living area to entertain at the weekly Sunday gatherings, and the beds will no longer have to be crowded together into cramped quarters.

Last year López's electricity was cut off. She was working in the Mexican fields during peak summer heat, "to buy a kilo of beans, a kilo of tortillas, nothing more," she says, "there wasn't even enough for the water, the gas, the light, nothing."

CITA hopes to help people avoid such future economic hardships by teaching members how to create a budget, save for the future, and live within their means.

In the meantime López and other CITA workers are showing their gratitude by tithing to their local church, Iglesia Milagro de Dios (God's Miracle Church). Plywood and garage-door walls have been replaced by pillars and cement. The pastor has been able to purchase a modest sound system, a podium, and banners with prayers and psalms. The floor is no longer made of dirt. A joyous green trim decorates the newly erected walls. Now when López sings her praises she no longer feels the wind seeping in through the uneven plywood slats.

Sara A. Fajardo is a CRS communications officer covering Latin America and the Caribbean. She recently visited our CITA program along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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