Typical, but dramatic and silent. Hundreds of farmworkers in Mexico crowd for hours in a cramped tunnel to a border station to reach day jobs in Imperial Valley, California, with no social distancing enforced despite coronavirus cases saturating hospitals in the country.
The most recent fact happened by 2 am on Tuesday, where tense men and women with cloth face masks and bandanas pushed for a position in line hundred deep through the underpass leading from the city of Mexicali to the U.S. port of entry. Vendors were selling tamales. A mariachi player lightened the mood. But the only hand-washing station was broken.
The daily back and forth flows to work in the United States and sleep back in Mexico, essential to both the $2 billion Imperial Valley fruit and vegetable harvests and thousands of families in Mexico, is the tragic evidence of the deeply entwined economies on either side of the border.
But the lack of safety measures and the late-night crowds stand in contrast to a curfew imposed in Mexicali recently this week, to try to stem the city’s fast-rising contagion, as well as to six feet (1.83 meters) distancing measures in the border station itself.
Even though no infections have been definitively reported to be linked to the Calexico West crossing, both the documented day labourers and U.S. border agents concern about the lack of social distancing on the Mexican side and the slow processing at the port of entry which could put them at risk.
Jose Salazar, who earns $500 to $600 harvesting melon in California six days a week, said that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should add agents to cut the time spent in the line.
“La Migra’ has not taken care to put on more officers, and that makes the virus a real threat for all of us,” he affirmed, using slang for border agents.
The stifling underground tunnel, smelling of sweat and cigarette is lined with pharmacies advertising Viagra. It passes underneath the border fence to a flight of crowded stairs ending at the Calexico West port of entry gate.
Each farmworker waits for two to three hours each night to cross, and worry they are more exposed to the virus before the port of entry than in the fields.
Even if fearful of spending so much time in line, some nights Salazar stays with his son in El Centro, California, rather than heading home, he admitted.
On the U.S. side of the port of entry, CBP agents impose social distancing rules. But some officers admitted that the measures were undermined by the conditions in the tunnel.
“It’s pointless for us to be six feet apart if they (the border crossers) are all crowded up first,” said one CBP agent, waiting for a test at a Calexico clinic after relatives resulted positive for the Covid-19 test, and his son developed a fever too.
The officer, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media -it’s not difficult to understand why-, said he was worried about the on-the-job exposure.
Nonetheless, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute did not immediately respond to questions about the lack of distancing enforcement and other sanitary measures in the tunnel.
A spokeswoman said CBP that she was “taking every available precaution to minimize the risk of exposure to our workforce and members of the public.”
Yet, in California, 84 CBP employees have tested positive for Coronavirus, the agency proclaimed. It did not give specific data for Calexico though. Employers have asked for Calexico’s second port of entry to open at night to avoid bottlenecks.
“We keep requesting that CBP increase the hours of its Calexico East Port of Entry so that our agricultural employees can utilize that border crossing,” said Brea Mohamed, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau. However, nothing has changed yet.