By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
He had no trouble coming back to Colorado in 2000. But in 2001, even before 9/11, border security was beefing up. The trip that year cost Ismael $1,000. He walked through the desert for four freezing nights and three deadly hot days. And like the hundreds of thousands who've made the trek across the desert, he was as afraid of la migra and desert bandits as he was of the snakes, scorpions and spiders. Still, he made it here, made his money and went home.
Crossing in 2002, Ismael saw the U.S. Border Patrol for the first time -- but they didn't see him. After that summer, he swore he'd never risk traveling the desert again just to make $6 an hour in Colorado, and he went back to his low-paying restaurant job in Mexico.
But as Ismael's children grew, so did their needs. The oldest of the three entered high school last year and had to have a computer. So this spring, Ismael again headed for el Norte. This time the trip cost $1,500 and required four nights and four days of hiking through the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation in Arizona. It wasn't yet summer, but the temperature was already high enough to kill a man. Ismael thought he just might be that man.
"You think about your family and your kids, your parents, your wife, everyone," he says. "It's so, so difficult, no? You get cold at night, so hot during the day, little water, little nourishment. You think of many things."
And then an airplane flew overhead. Soon after, a helicopter landed nearby and federal agents stormed the group, rounding up Ismael and the thirty or so others. Ismael was dropped off at the border, where he boarded a bus back to his village, $1,500 lighter. Back home, he borrowed another $1,500 to pay another smuggler, and 48 hours later he was back on the border. After another journey through the desert, he finally made it to the same farm in northern Colorado.
Every morning this summer, Ismael got up before sunrise. He fixed a bean burrito for breakfast and grabbed a can of tuna and an apple for lunch. Weather permitting, he was out in the fields until the sun went down, six days a week. He lived in close quarters with other workers, sharing scummy showers, port-a-potties, dirty refrigerators. For those who arrived early, there were beds; for the latecomers, floor space. If a worker stayed all season, the farmer didn't charge him rent.
The agricultural season is just about over, but Ismael can't go home yet. At $6 an hour, it took a lot of work just to cover his costs in getting here. Some of the other laborers are moving down to the citrus fields of Arizona, but Ismael worries that if he goes that close to the border, he'll be rounded up. So he's looking for work in Colorado, hoping to clear $10,000 before he leaves for Mexico -- because he doesn't want to return, ever.
Farmers can apply for seasonal visas for agricultural workers. Unlike with the H-2B visas that Krieble relies on, there's no limit to agricultural visas, or H-2As. Still, relatively few farmers apply for them. Ismael's boss says the process is too time-consuming and expensive to go through (it requires he pay for transportation and housing, among other things). This year, he wound up sixty to eighty workers short and had to let vegetables die on the vine.
That left more work for Ismael -- and he was eager to do it, despite the conditions. "We're like slaves without chains," he says.
Krieble would like to break the chains for both the workers and their employers.
"I have yet to meet a Mexican worker who wants to be illegal," she says. "They don't. Why would they? Why would they want to come across the border, risk their lives, to get to a job where they may be paid under minimum wage and have to live in a horse stall or some absolutely awful sub-level housing?"
On a hot day in August, about 300 people gathered at the Aurora City Council Chambers for a hearing on immigration hosted by Senator Wayne Allard. Last December, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed a bill that outlined an enforcement-only approach to immigration; in May, the Senate had passed a bill that included a guest-worker program and granted a pathway to citizenship for those already here, which critics decried as amnesty. But neither side of Congress had passed the other's bill.
The hearing was designed to find some common ground in very hotly contested political territory. A couple of spectators waved U.S. flags, and others wore red, white and blue shirts in solidarity. No one on either side of the debate was shy about expressing their opinions, and more than a dozen cops were working security.
Helen Krieble's name was included on the list of nine witnesses who would testify that day, all invited to do so by Allard. The testimony began with Governor Bill Owens, who cited studies that the Colorado Department of Education is spending $235 million on illegal-immigrant students and another $329 million on anchor-baby students. The state is also paying $25 million for illegal immigrants imprisoned here, he said, and about $3,500 for every additional anchor baby squeezed out.