A Toll on Earth
The economy of Yuma is based on one continual phenomenon, migration. The multi-million dollar agricultural industry depends on the daily migration of Mexican farm labor for its survival; and retirees from colder northern climes also bolster Yuma’s economy.
An early example of historical migration occurred in the midst of the 19th century. In the 1800s, the federal government warranted the slaughter of the species Bison bison in its desire to rid the land of the native peoples who inhabited the Great Plains. (Millions of bleached bones were collected off the prairie and shipped to one of four processing centers—in Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, or Baltimore—for the making of fertilizer for farming.) The native cultures of the Great Plains were eventually rounded up and forced to migrate onto reservations, thus allowing the land to be cleared for European settlers.
The descendants of these early pioneers have become migrants themselves and very much like the nomadic peoples they replaced on the prairies. But unlike the natives that had been removed, the people we call “snowbirds,” migrate on their own terms through privilege and luxury. Their migration follows the natural pattern of their feathered friends and is seasonal into a new and arid landscape, the Yuma Valley, a land that had been stolen to help create the southwestern states of Arizona and California.
Today, another migration into Yuma occurs, daily. Without it, the agricultural system of our nation would fail. Each day, hundreds of Mexican farm laborers spend a minimum of five hours getting up in the early morning hours to stand in lines to cross the border into the United States to get on white buses which carry them to the fields where they work for eight hours in the hot sun. They repeat this process every day, spending time away from their families. They go through this process in order to feed their families. We force them to do this, because we do not want them living in our own country, but we do want them sustaining our economy, our way of life.
So when we move from one part of this country to another, remember that the landscape we left was once Indian country, that we were on Indian land, and that the landscape we are coming into, is Mexican land. We must remember that our seasonal migrations are made possible because of a migration that occurs daily, here in the Yuma Valley.
On February 29, 2016, I dropped by the David M. Roll Federal Courthouse here in Yuma to find out the schedule for Operation Streamline. When I asked one of the court clerks behind the glass window, he stated that he had never heard of Operation Streamline and mentioned that his specialty was bankruptcy law. He then went to ask a colleague. A woman came to the window and asked what I wanted. I asked her what the daily schedule was for Operation Streamline because I was interested in observing the proceedings. She said that they no longer referred to it by that title, using the terms “8 USC 1325” (improper entry of alien) and “8 USC 1326” (reentry after removal of alien) instead.
On March 2, at 1:30 PM, I returned to the courthouse to observe Operation Streamline. The federal marshals standing at the security entrance recognized me from two days earlier. Minutes before, two of them had come outside to see what I was photographing. Unbeknownst to me, I had shown up on their security screens. I told them I was taking pictures of the bright yellow blossoms of the Palo Verde tree that were in full splendor. I went through the screening and was told to wait at the table in the hallway until I would be invited into the courtroom. I was ushered to the second floor. Two lawyers sat at one of the tables. One was the federal prosecutor for Operation Streamline. I asked if I could borrow a sheet of paper for taking notes. Suspicious, the federal prosecutor asked who I was and if I was a journalist. I told him I was an artist. He got up and walked away. I waited for nearly a half hour until I was told I could enter the courtroom. During that time, one of the federal marshals came to sit at the table next to mine. He followed me into the courtroom and sat next to me on the same bench, while a fellow marshal stood behind.
Only five illegal migrants were processed that day for their petty offenses. They sat shackled at the wrists and ankles during the proceeding. It took less than twenty minutes. For what reasons they entered improperly into the United States the previous day, we will never know, nor will the government ever care. It is likely they came for two reasons: to find work to support their families back in Mexico or to return to their families here in the U.S. I honor these five for their courage. Their names are Alejandro Martinez-Samora, Abdon Reyes-Martinez, Fernando Rivera-Vasquez, Miguel Serapin-Alcazar and Martine Guadalupe-Cantore.