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Immigration, Agriculture, and the Border Fence

posted on July 18, 2008

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In an environmental study released this week, the Homeland Security Department acknowledged a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border will make life harder on some South Texas farmers, damage valuable wildlife habitats, impair views and generally become an obstacle to border life.

According to the study, there will be serious trade-offs for 70 miles of fence designed to help the Border Patrol control illegal immigration and smuggling. But officials said residents will benefit from increased security against "illegal cross-border activity."

While a litany of immigration policy reforms have been proposed in Washington, one of the most symbolic -- and controversial -- is a physical fence between the U.S. and Mexico. And as Andrew Batt discovered last winter, the fence has critics on BOTH sides of the border.


Hours before sunrise over the Arizona desert, a Mexican farm worker's day at the office has already begun. In the dark confines of a U.S. Customs border station, thousands of day laborers check-in on American soil. By 4 A.M., the worker line stretches beyond U.S. government offices, past the twenty-foot border fence, and back into Mexico.

The thousands of Mexican citizens diligently waiting in line are a testament to the intertwined relationship of American immigration policy and agriculture.

The Sun-drenched fields of Yuma, Arizona, offer a year-round opportunity to plant and harvest everything from romaine lettuce and carrots to cotton. But unlike modern row-crop agriculture, most of the crops in Yuma need the dexterity of human hands to harvest. Those hands almost always belong to thousands of Mexican laborers.

Doug Mellon, Yuma, AZ: "…if we were to pay forty dollars an hour unfortunately we cannot attract any of the local labor if you want to call it that. The Caucasians aren't about to come out and work in these fields when it's a hundred and five to a hundred and ten degrees. They don't have the sustaining power to stay in day in and day out. The work ethic in the United States and in a lot of ways has gone backwards on us."

Doug Mellon is a second generation farmer and lifelong resident of Yuma, Arizona. Mellon has witnessed decades of transformation in the self-proclaimed "winter vegetable capitol of the world" and stresses that a migrant workforce is as important today as ever before.

Despite popular belief, he says his workers receive more than the minimum wage – sometimes as much as $15 dollars an hour - and pay individual taxes. But Mellon believes current immigration policy is terribly flawed and he's worried that a recent construction project could slash workforce availability.

Doug Mellon, Yuma, Arizona: "…we live right next door to the Mexican Border but it's challenging now because of the extra added border patrol they've put on because of the National Guard that they put in place and because of the fence that they're building now."

Championed by President Bush, the new border fence has caught the attention of farm owners, workers, and lawmakers.

President George W. Bush: "…there has to be some infrastructure along the border to be able to let these agents do their job. And so I appreciate the fact that we've got double fencing, all-weather roads, new lighting, mobile cameras. The American people have no earthly idea what's going on down here."

The Bush Administration has funneled millions of dollars towards the U.S. Border Patrol and is using Yuma, Arizona as a case study in modern immigration enforcement. The border fence, often used as a political football during policy debates and recent campaigns, is already built in southern Arizona.

Stretching for more than 100 miles along the border between California, Arizona, and Mexico, the multi-layer Yuma Sector fence is just part of a new strategy intended to crackdown on illegal immigration.

Jeremy Schappell, Border Agent Yuma Sector: "The infrastructure, the manpower, and the new technology that we're adding to the border has all made it a success story. We are the flagship of the patrol right now. No time in the history of the border patrol in one year has any sector experienced such a great decrease in apprehensions that we experienced this year."

Border Patrol agents in Yuma sector proclaim the new fence has slashed border crossings by historic proportions. In 2006, Yuma sector agents apprehended 118,000 illegal immigrants. After the fence was built in 2007, apprehensions dropped to 38,000 – a 68% decrease in arrests.

Jeremy Schappell, Border Agent Yuma Sector: "There's not a fence ever been built that keeps people out. It will slow them down and that's all this fence does. It slows them down, it gives us the time to respond, where as a year ago they could jump our primary fence with a two hundred yard dash a group of a hundred could be lost in a housing area. Now with our triple layer fencing and our stadium lighting they don't have the time to get over all three fences before we have the opportunity to respond to that area."

While border agents are quick to defend the fence as only a piece of the overall enforcement puzzle, growers like Doug Mellon are highly critical.

Doug Mellon, Yuma, Arizona: "It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life. No, that's not the answer. No more than the Berlin Wall was the answer. People can get over, under, around, and through a wall, and they are throwing money at this problem but they're not coming up with the proper answers, proper solutions."

Mellon's concerns that any depression in available workers could wreak havoc in Yuma are not without merit. The agriculture fields of southwest Arizona produce 90% of America's winter lettuce crop and need 30 to 50,000 workers each day during harvest season. And there are already signs that labor is hard to come by…

Ed Hermes, Arizona Dept. of Agriculture: "There's a labor shortage all around. We either import labor or we export the farms. It's an easy choice and we see a lot of farmers now who are, are looking at plan B which is exporting their farms and those looking at going to Mexico."

Arizona Dept. of Agriculture representative Ed Hermes is less than optimistic about the future of immigrant labor. He argues the federal government needs to reform its guest worker programs or face stiff consequences in business sectors like agriculture and construction.

Ed Hermes, Arizona Dept. of Agriculture: "If you tried to deport the twelve million undocumented folks in this country we can't sustain the industry. We can't sustain it the way it is right now. It's not a sustainable way. I am optimistic but I think it's going to get darker, it's going to get even more gloomy for our folks before enough people wake up and realize that we need to start making hard decisions and start actually trying to reform our whole immigration and labor system."

Reform is exactly what President Bush and a bi-partisan team of lawmakers attempted last summer.

But the immigration reform bill was trashed by some conservatives as amnesty and criticized by some liberals as falling short of true reform. The bitter divide ensures that President Bush will not alter immigration policy during his presidency.

Back in Arizona, border patrol agents have already caught drug smugglers and human traffickers digging tunnels underneath the new fence. Agents claim they can defend against tunnels and that the fence is doing exactly what it's supposed to do – slow down illegal crossings, not prevent them.

Local growers hope that real immigration reform is somewhere on the horizon and that a new fence is not the only solution coming out of Washington.

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: agriculture Arizona border fence borders immigration Mexico news