Imperial Valley, California's `Last Frontier,' Sees An Unsure Future
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.
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.
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.
Alejandro, 32, and Jose, 28, work seven days a week, making $8 an hour connecting irrigation pipes and doing other odd jobs. Alejandro, who drives across the border in his 2006 Chevrolet Silverado around midnight and sleeps in his vehicle to beat the morning rush, was making $800 a week driving trucks in Southern California but the economic downturn forced him to the farms.
Eloisa, 30, makes $8.25 an hour packing lettuce, and Liliana, 28, gets $8 an hour plucking weeds. Both must pay $5 a day for car rides to the fields from the border.
Scaroni, whose Swiss grandparents were among the Imperial Valley's first settlers in 1912, worries his employees are aging. Stricter immigration enforcement has made it more difficult to find Mexican workers, and he believes Americans would be unwilling to take the jobs even at $15 an hour.
"It's a shrinking pool. Nobody raises their kids to be farmworkers," said Scaroni, 54, who employs hundreds of workers in the area during peak season.
Gerardo Arballo, one of Scaroni's crew leaders, hired Pimentel in December when she approached him at the donut shop. Because of her age, he assigns her to the conveyor belt.
"She's tired. I try to look for ways to make sure she doesn't wear herself out," said Arballo, 31, who wears a cowboy hat and tries to lighten the mood with jokes.
Downtown is almost emptied when Arballo gets behind the wheel of an old school bus at 6:10 a.m. Everyone is in their regular seats – Pimentel and two other women in front and eight men in back. Few words are exchanged during the one-hour ride as several close their eyes.
The no-stoplight Imperial Valley town of Holtville is called the world's carrot capital. It's here that Jack Vessey begins his workday listening to about a dozen lieutenants take turns addressing their areas of specialty on the 10,000 acres his family owns or leases.
One updates the staff on the 160 acres of organic romaine hearts that Pimentel's crew was hired to pick. Bart Reis, the operations chief who runs the meeting from the head of a long table, orders 10 of those acres watered one last time before it is turned over to the crew for harvesting.
Vessey, a boyish-looking 37 with close-cropped blond hair, grows lettuce, spinach, broccoli, onions, cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, bok choy, arugula, celery. In spring, he picks cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. He is constantly on the phone negotiating with Dole, Fresh Express and other companies that slap their labels on his produce.
Vessey is unlike many big farmers who trace their roots in the Imperial Valley to its pioneers a century ago. Early settlers went broke when they got too zealous diverting the Colorado River in 1905, creating a two-year flood and setting the stage for another wave of European immigrants whose descendants own much of the land today. The Vesseys settled full-time in the 1960s after about two decades as part-time residents.
The family occupies some of the region's best land near the Arizona state line, where the river feeds into the All-American Canal, an 82-mile channel that straddles the Mexican border and was built in the 1940s to prevent Imperial Valley's lifeline from meandering outside the United States. His fields thrive on about 30 of the hundreds of narrow, concrete canals built along country highways and dirt roads. The water gets saltier as it runs downhill about 30 miles north to the Salton Sea, California's largest lake.
Water has always been the driving political issue in Imperial Valley, fueled by fears that 19 million people living on Southern California's coast will suck it dry. Los Angeles dealt that fate to Owens Valley farmers almost a century ago, as portrayed in Roman Polanski's film "Chinatown."
Imperial Valley, with only 175,000 people – but a half-million acres of productive farms – gets nearly 20 percent of the Colorado River's flow, which would be enough for more than 6 million homes. It gets more than any of the seven western U.S. states and northern Mexico, which also rely on the 1,450-mile waterway. Early settlers were first to claim the water and, under Western water law, farmers can keep it as long as they can demonstrate it is put to good use.
Imperial Valley got a jolt in 1984 when a state panel ruled farmers were wasting water, forcing the sale of a slice of its share to cities. The Bass family, Texas oil billionaires, soon became the largest landowners in an ill-fated attempt to sell even more water to cities.
Vessey joined other big farmers to campaign against a 2003 agreement under which Imperial Valley sold water to San Diego in the nation's largest farm-to-city transfer.
Mike Morgan, whose great-grandfather settled in 1904, is their leader. A walking encyclopedia on water disputes, Morgan has refused to cut his hair until his concerns are addressed. Now, eight years later, the 64-year-old's gray and strawberry blond ponytail stretches down his back.
The farmers' main target is the Imperial Irrigation District, which bought the canal system from the region's bankrupted pioneers in 1911 and manages its water rights. The government agency employs 1,300 people, ranging from "zanjeros" who open and close 6,000 metal canal gates to meter readers at its electric utility. To critics, the agency is a bloated, misguided bureaucracy.
Non-farmers now control the agency's five-member elected board, a shift welcomed by some who fear large landowners might squander the region's most precious resource.
Vessey disagrees: "It makes me nervous when a jeweler in El Centro has control over that water."
A canal-lined highway carries Roy Limon from his home in the Imperial County seat of El Centro to his job in a different industry that has become a mainstay in the region: law enforcement.
Limon, 57, whose graying mustache rises when he smiles, has been a guard at a prison in Calipatria since it opened in 1992 at the peak of California's prison construction boom and shortly before voters approved a law requiring life sentences for many three-time felons.
He rakes in overtime pay on double shifts three nights a week and he gets weekends and holidays off. His pension guarantees 75 percent of his salary when he retires in five years. Limon, whose great-grandfather settled in the Imperial Valley in the early 1900s, was the first in his family to shun farming after a stint picking watermelons as a teenager.
Calipatria and another state prison that opened nearby in 1993 employ 2,400 people – a big reason why federal, state and local government agencies account for one in three jobs in the Imperial Valley, even more than farming. Nationwide, government provides only one in six jobs.
Still, at California prisons, the flushest times are over. Court orders reduce the inmate population, and budget cuts end vocational programs. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal agencies behind heightened border enforcement have stepped in with jobs that start around $40,000 a year and rise quickly. The Border Patrol nearly doubled its presence in the Imperial Valley over the last six years to 1,240 agents.
Students at an Imperial Valley College criminal justice class say their parents pleaded with them not to follow their footsteps into farming.
"They just wanted something better for me," said Michelle Herrera, 20, whose sister is a supervisor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It was either be a teacher or law enforcement."
The region's unemployment rate has been sky-high for as long as anyone can remember, never dropping below double digits.
It topped 40 percent six months after Limon quit his job at the county jail to work at the new prison in 1992, doubling his pay overnight. He celebrated by buying a larger home, and his family took trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas. In 2004, he moved into an even larger custom-built home with his wife, Josie. High ceilings open to a yard of mesquite, palm and magnolia trees, next door to the one-bedroom house where Josie grew up sleeping on the living room couch.
Limon understood when his wife persuaded their two sons to avoid careers law enforcement. She was terrified during a prison disturbance in 1994, the first of several at his maximum-security prison.
"You live with it, but you know things can happen," she said.
One son is a local barber, the other a psychology student.
A nephew, Robert Limon, joined the Border Patrol in 2008 at the peak of the agency's hiring boom. He and his wife are raising four children in the Imperial Valley.
"I'm going to stay here as long as I can," Robert Limon said. "It's home."
To keep its people, Imperial Valley knows it must broaden its economy.
Previous efforts to diversify fizzled, from resorts on the Salton Sea that drew the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys in the 1960s to a short-lived housing boom in the last decade that fueled talk of Imperial Valley becoming a distant San Diego suburb and ended in a wave of foreclosures.
The North American Free Trade Agreement brought some warehouses in the 1990s but the region has largely failed to capitalize on Mexicali's huge output of televisions, kitchen appliances and other goods for export to the United States.
Three Wal-Mart Supercenters and a host of other new big-box stores cater to droves of shoppers from Mexicali, a booming industrial city of nearly 1 million people. But the malls built over the last decade mainly offer low-paying jobs.
The past struggles don't discourage Andy Horne.
"We're always optimistic down here," he says. "We know we're the last frontier for development potential in Southern California."
Horne, 59, whose grandfather settled in the Imperial Valley in 1913 as a banker, is the county's deputy chief executive officer for natural resources development. He thinks renewable energy may be the right fit for the local economy. Luring solar, geothermal and wind companies is a big part of his job, and there have been hefty investments already.
Imperial Valley's cheap land and proximity to Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix make it a natural for renewable energy companies. The summer heat is so intense that stores put foam on metal door handles to prevent customers from burning their hands.
But the valley's traditions and competing interests have to be balanced, too. Keenly sensitive to growing complaints from farmers about the 18,000 acres that solar developers want to turn into about 30 plants, Horne says, "We don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."
In December, Tenaska Energy Inc. of Omaha, Neb., broke ground on 1,000-acre solar plant in Imperial Valley. It anticipates hiring as many as 300 workers during construction but only five full-time employees after operations begin.
"(Solar plants) eat up a lot of our land, they don't create a lot of new jobs, and they also don't pay a lot of property taxes," Horne says in his drawl, behind a large desk that displays a thick binder on another proposed solar plant.
Horne is more enthusiastic about the handful of geothermal plants already built or on the drawing board, saying they generate taxes and good-paying jobs.
One new geothermal plant employs about 30 people along the road that Roy Limon takes home from the prison at the end of his workday.
Jack Vessey closes his farm around 4 p.m. but answers phone calls and emails well into the evening.
As for Maria Guadalupe Pimentel, she gets home bleary-eyed around 8 p.m. after a three-hour commute on two buses from the field, across the border, and finally back to her home in Mexicali. Her husband greets her with tacos of shredded beef.
"The hardest part of the job is the commute," he says.
Lights are out at 10 p.m. Accordion-driven ranchero music plays softly from neighboring homes until 11 p.m., just a few hours before her husband will give her another wake-up knock.
AP Photo By Gergory Bull