A group of Mexican farmworkers with H2A visas prepare to cross at the San Ysidro border to work in the U.S. on Oct. 6, 2023.
A group of Mexican farmworkers with H2A visas prepare to cross at the San Ysidro border to work in the United States on Oct. 6, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

After waiting for three days in a Tijuana hotel, Juan Pedro Nava was a man in a hurry on Friday, Oct. 6. He headed toward the San Ysidro Port of Entry with his visa in hand.

The 24-year-old is going to spend the next two months in the United States. He’s part of a group of agricultural workers from Villa Guerrero, Mexico, going to assemble Christmas wreaths in Yakima, Washington.

In recent months, I’ve seen hundreds of workers at a time pulling small suitcases and lining up at the busy port. Like Nava, they are temporary workers from Mexico. Many of them are heading for fields, orchards and nurseries in California and beyond. 

While the public focus has been on the crush of asylum seekers at the border, this orderly flow has been soaring in recent years with far less public attention.

Sergio Miranda, 34, was heading to Yuma to pick lemons. He expected to earn about $15 an hour, he told me. His employer would provide lodging and pay for travel expenses.

He told me this was his second time working in the United States. He left behind a small barber shop and an 11-year-old daughter in Poza Rica, Veracruz, for a chance to earn money. In May, he came to pick pears outside Ukiah.

“Once you get the hang of it, it’s not that difficult,” he told me.

More Temporary Workers Are Crossing

Leticia Martinez, left, and two friends from Tasquillo, Hidalgo, prepare to cross to work on a golf course outside Denver. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Mexicans for decades have been crossing into the United States as temporary farm workers — initially under the Bracero Program, which ran from 1942 to 1964 and employed more than four million workers. Since 1987, U.S. employers have been hiring temporary agricultural workers from outside the country through the H-2A program. Those in the non-agricultural sector get H-2B visas.

To hire foreign workers, employers must show that they first tried to hire U.S. workers for the positions. Employers pay travel and housing expenses, and guarantee workers a number of hours of work.

Nationally, the numbers of H-2A visa workers have risen dramatically over the past decade and continue rising.  The Department of State issued some 298,000 H-2A in Fiscal Year 2022 – up from 258,000 in FY 2021. Ninety-three percent of those went to Mexican nationals. 

Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, expects the numbers of H-2A visas to rise by more than 25,000 for FY 2023 for Mexicans alone.

“Many of them are likely going to return next year, because, once they do the H-2A program, most come back,” Ruiz Soto said.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, is among several groups that have recommended expansion of the H-2A program, with measures that include encouraging employers to recruit agricultural workers in Central America.

 “We’ve seen how successful the H-2A program has been for legal pathways for Mexicans,” said Ruiz Soto. “There is some merit to be more proactive and help more Central Americans have similar options.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a pilot program whose provisions include incentives for employers who recruit H-2A workers from Central America.

Flow of Workers Varies with the Seasonal Demand

Temporary workers prepare to cross at the San Ysidro border to work in the United States on Oct. 6, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
Temporary workers prepare to cross at the San Ysidro border to work in the United States on Oct. 6, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

At the San Ysidro border, the numbers of farmworkers coming across vary with crops and seasons, according to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. A consulate spokesman said that in San Diego County, for instance, farmers hire H-2A workers for the tomato season which peaks in August but runs from March through November.

In the United States, “these are the people that pick up the food that we eat on a daily basis,” said Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, Mexico’s Consul General in San Diego. “From the Mexican perspective, they send important remittances to their hometowns…they are able to keep their families in Mexico. The worst scenario for us is to have ghost towns as a result of migrant workers not finding any other options but to bring their whole  family with them undocumented with them to the United States.”

On that Friday earlier this month, I met workers from across Mexico–Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Jalisco, Aguascalientes. 

In one group, many were from the state of Hidalgo, including three women from the municipality of Tasquillo heading to work on a golf course outside Denver.

“Back home, there isn’t much work, they pay very little,” said Leticia Martinez, a 43-year-old mother of two. “We had the opportunity to come and we took it.” 

Martinez’s children are grown, but one of her companions wept at the thought of leaving her 13-year-old behind for two months.

Among their travel companions was Johan Sanchez, a 21-year-old from the town of Teocaltiche in the state of Jalisco, crossing to work in the United States for the second time.

The money he earns in Colorado will help him build a house back home, said Sanchez, who earns money there working carpentry jobs and tending horses.

He has uncles living in the United States as permanent residents. He told me that he has no interest in entering the country without documents.

“Crossing illegally? Never, that’s just not in my plans,” he said.   

In Other News

  • California in-state tuition for students in Mexico: California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed into law Assembly Bill 91, which allows low-income Mexican residents who live within 45 miles of the California border to pay in-state tuition at California community colleges. The bill, introduced by Assemblymember David Alvarez, D-Chula Vista, establishes a pilot program that lasts through 2029, and names eight community colleges in San Diego and Imperial Counties that can accept up to 150 students. (Los Angeles Times, Chula Vista Star News)
  • U.S. students in Tijuana: Some 350 U.S. residents are enrolled at the Tijuana campus of the private CETYS University, KPBS News reported. This bucks the predominant trend that draws foreign students to U.S. colleges and universities.
  • High-ranking police official killed: The public safety director of the municipality San Quintin was shot to death Friday night in an ambush outside his Tijuana residence. Mario Martinez previously served as director of operations of the Tijuana police department. (Zeta, Ensenada.net) 
  • California Coastal Commission meets in Imperial Beach: Members of the California Coastal Commission toured the Tijuana River Valley Wednesday, learning first-hand about the effects of cross-border sewage contamination on San Diego County. Joining them was California Lt. Gov. Elena Kounalakis and Maria Elena Giner, U.S. commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission. (San Diego Union-Tribune, Coronado Times, Courthouse News) 
  • Zapotec pride at the border: Members of the Zapotec-Istmeno community, an indigenous group from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, celebrated their first organized dance in Tijuana this month. The festivities were recorded in this video from the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

Are there topics you’d like to hear about in the Border Report? I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email at sandradibblenews@gmail.com

Correction: This post has been updated to correct the date of Friday, Oct. 6.

This has been updated to reflect that the Migration Policy Institute is an independent think tank that is not affiliated with the U.S. government pilot program announced last month.

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