Living on Both Sides of the US-Mexico Border in the Imperial Valley, California

Published April 02, 2012
Fox News Latino
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CALEXICO, Calif. – The day begins at 1:40 a.m. for Maria Guadalupe Pimentel when her husband knocks on their bedroom door, less than four hours after she fell asleep.

"It's time," Ignacio Erape says before heading to the kitchen of their home just across the border in Mexicali, Mexico. He finishes preparing a lunch of spicy chorizo sausage rolled into tortillas for his wife and four children.

Within minutes, Pimentel is in the back seat of her son's 1998 Honda Civic, passing through deserted boulevards on her way to the United States.

She and thousands of other Mexicans enter the US legally each morning and return home each night — forming an unusual pillar of one of America's most depressed labor markets. California's Imperial Valley consistently registers the nation's highest unemployment rate — 26.7 percent in February— yet it looks south of the border to fill many of its jobs because locals shun $9-an-hour jobs picking crops.

And that's not all that distinguishes the Imperial Valley, barely 100 miles east of San Diego but a world away.

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It's a place where a massive diversion of the Colorado River created a garden in the desert that stocks the nation's supermarkets with vegetables during winter. It's a place that embraced new prisons and a huge build-up in border enforcement, making law enforcement one of the only careers for young men and women hoping to stay close to home. Trying to grow further beyond its farming roots, it's a place that lately has made its abundant sunshine, wind and underground heat available to renewable energy companies.

A look at a day in the life here shows how issues that all Americans ponder, especially in this election season — environment, jobs, immigration — play out in unique ways in the Imperial Valley.

By 3 a.m., Maria Pimentel is in the long, slow line to reach border inspectors. "Don't let them cut," others shout at line-breakers as she shakes her head in disgust.

Finally, she enters Calexico, pop. 39,000, and walks three blocks to "La Dona," a donut shop that serves weak coffee and is one of the main gathering spots for crew leaders to find workers.

"I need two workers," says one crew leader to Pimentel, who politely declines. It is 5 a.m. and the tiny downtown's streets are bustling with buses and cars headed to the fields.

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Pimentel has the best job in her family, making $9 to $11 an hour working for Steve Scaroni, one of Imperial Valley's largest farm labor contractors. He cuts her a check every Friday with $40 cash advances three days a week, and she has never had to haggle over missing pay.

Now 49, she quit a job earning the equivalent of $7 a day assembling heating vents at a Mexicali factory when she became a legal U.S. resident in 2006. She earns more money in an hour working in California, lifting organic romaine hearts from a conveyor belt and putting them into plastic bags three at a time.

Pimentel and her husband never attended a day of school in central Mexico and neither can read. She began picking strawberries when she was 12. He began herding cattle when he was 6.

The young couple heeded the call of Pimentel's half-sister to join her in Mexicali in the late 1970s, hoping for steady work. Erape, now 59, became a legal U.S. resident after a 1986 law granted amnesty to 2.7 million people. For three decades, he worked half the year picking crops in California's Central Valley. But in 2008, spiraling U.S. housing costs led him to stay in Mexcali to care full-time for three of his 11 grandchildren.

They live in a comfortable house on Mexicali's southern outskirts, painted orange with three white arches over the front patio and a well-manicured garden. On Sundays — Pimentel's only day off — it is an open house for family and friends to feast on dishes like shrimp ceviche and tripe soup. Laughter fills the air as Pimentel hovers near the stove.

Money is always tight. The house has no bathroom sink and only enough white floor tiles to cover two of four bedrooms. Telephone service was cut off in December.

And so Pimentel, a stocky woman who pulls her black wavy hair into a ponytail and has a few missing teeth, keeps working in Imperial Valley's fields, as do her children, who also became cross-border commuters when they turned legal residents in 2006.

Living on Both Sides of the US-Mexico Border in the Imperial Valley, California | Fox News Latino