May 28, 2020 | 5:42 pm
Every night, hundreds of day laborers in northern Mexico crowd for hours a narrow tunnel that ends at a border station to get to their daily jobs in California, United States, despite coronavirus infections that saturate hospitals in the area.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, tense men and women, wearing cloth masks and handkerchiefs, rushed to line up through the underpass that leads from Mexicali to the United States’ port of entry.
Vendors offered tamales. A mariachi raised the spirits. But the only handwashing point was broken.
The daily flow to and from work in the United States and sleep back in Mexico is essential both for the harvest of fruits and vegetables of the Californian Imperial Valley, valued at 2 billion dollars, and for thousands of Mexican families.
A clear example of the deep ties of the economies on both sides of the border.
But the lack of security measures and the night crowds contrast with the curfew imposed this week in Mexicali to try to stop the rapid contagion, as well as the distancing measures of about two meters at the border station.
While no infection has been definitively linked to the Calexico West crossing, both day laborers and U.S. border agents are concerned about the lack of social distance on the Mexican side and the slow movement at the port of entry, which puts them at risk.
‘Migrates’ without day laborers’ caution
José Salazar, one of the day laborers who earns between $ 500 and $ 600 a week harvesting melon in California, said that the Customs and Border Protection Office (CBP) should add agents to reduce the time they spend in the row.
La migra does not take the precaution of putting more agents, and (from) that it turns out that the pandemic grows,
he said, using the jargon used to refer to border agents.
The suffocating tunnel – which sometimes smells of sweat, cigarettes, and is full of pharmacies that advertise Viagra – runs under the border fence toward a flight of crowded stairs that ends at the access to Calexico West.
Eight day laborers said they wait two or three hours each night to cross and fear they are more exposed to the virus there than in agricultural fields.
Afraid to spend so much time in line, some nights Salazar stays with her son in El Centro, California, instead of returning home, she said.
On the US side of the border crossing, CBP officers enforce social distancing rules, but some said the rules were undermined by conditions in the tunnel.
It doesn’t make sense that we are six feet away if they (the ones who cross the border) huddle first,
said a US border agent.
The officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he is concerned about the exposure at work, and is awaiting medical testing at a Calexico clinic after family members became infected with coronavirus and his son developed fever.
The Mexican National Migration Institute did not immediately respond to questions about the lack of distance and other sanitary measures in the tunnel.
A spokeswoman said CBP was “taking all available precautions to minimize the risk of exposure to our workforce and members of the public.”
In California, 84 employees of that border agency have tested positive for COVID-19, said the US entity. He did not give data specifically for Calexico.
Employers ask that the second port of entry at Calexico open at night to avoid bottlenecks.
“We have continued to request that CBP increase the hours at its Calexico East port of entry so that our farm employees can use that border crossing,” said Brea Mohamed, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau organization of farmers and agrarian entrepreneurs.