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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

The Cruelest Month

March brings staggering seasonal unemployment and a fresh wave of homeless to Luna County


Because of all the seasonal work on farms, Luna County has the highest unemployment rate in New Mexico. If you drove by the Department of Labor office in Deming around 7:45 a.m. in January just a few years ago, you'd see a line of 50 or more shivering people, mostly Mexican males, stretching across the parking lot, people who were applying for unemployment benefits for the winter.

Some of these guys had gotten there as early as 1 a.m. to sign up for their place in line or to park their car. I myself have huddled in my car once from about 5 a.m. till the time the doors opened.

This system has been computerized and telephone-ized in the past couple of years, but the DOL office chairs are still filled during the winter by people with unemployment issues.

In 1997 the unemployment rate for Luna County in March (the peak of unemployment) was 37.4 percent, a figure you might reasonably call "staggering," like something out of Honduras or Mali. Due mostly to dramatic changes in the way the figures are being calculated now in New Mexico, the unemployment rate in March 2007 was figured at only 12.6 percent. But Luna was still at the top of the heap.

"It's probably the most difficult of all counties to count. It's a can of worms," Mark Boyd of the DOL in Santa Fe explained to me. "It has been problematic always, with migrant workers and so forth."

He said he'd heard some workers go back to Mexico during the off-season and have someone send them their unemployment check, which is illegal but probably keeps a lot of families together. A family of fieldworkers in Garfield, whose photo I've used a lot, does exactly this in the winter. To them it's a pretty good deal.

But winter is grim for a lot of people in Deming and Columbus. Unemployment checks average about three-quarters of what the person got when they were working, I've been told, and the average pay for a fieldworker is only $6,000 a year. Sometimes corrupt labor contractors neglect to report work, and major chunks of the money due workers goes missing. The worker may spend weeks straightening out the paperwork.

The checks don't always last until work begins again in April or May, and they have to scramble to survive. This is even more likely to happen now that the red chile harvest has been mechanized. It means that work ends for most pickers earlier in the fall. They get smaller checks that run out earlier.

The stories of hardships just multiply. I talked to a fieldworker who said this winter he was living on a loan from a friend. He didn't want to get government help because he was afraid it would cause problems if he later applied for citizenship.

Last summer I met a Mexican man I knew who had lost the job he had at a garage, and he and his family were living on only food stamps. A friend at the Department of Labor sighed, "We see those people all the time." He said there are more of them in the winter.

In a phenomenon that goes mostly unseen and unreported, all year 'round there are lots of people who sleep outside in Deming. I don't think there's anybody who can put a number to it, but it's especially high in the winter.

At this time there are more white transients drawn south to I-10 by warmer weather. Most of them sleep near the railroad tracks north of town or to the west of the truck stop. They may be traveling from job to job, or escaping child-support payments or criminal charges.

A bunch of Mexican farmworker types, the kind who work just enough to buy another bottle of vodka, bed down at night in one of the alleyways running behind houses in town. One of them once gave me a red plastic rose because, he said, "You're helping us." (I wasn't really helping them; I was just listening.)

I had my eyes opened to a new type of homeless person while rambling around getting information for this column. I met a man named Gerardo who told me he'd lost his papers to work in the US.

He can't get unemployment without an ID, so in the winter he lives in the open air. He sometimes sleeps at the house of friends, other times on the grass. He said, "I wrap two blankets around me, over my clothes.

"Sometimes I eat twice a day — sometimes nothing!" he added, grinning, with the kind of black humor typical of Mexican immigrants.

Gerardo claimed there were about 20 other men in Deming with the same problem. Eight or 10 of them sleep under a bridge, he said. I was told by another man in the same situation, named Pedro, that one man rolled down from their ledge and spent two days in the hospital in late January.

Gerardo lost his green card one day, just like that, while working in a field. "One day there's a lot of mud in the field, and you look around and it's lost!" he said cheerfully, shrugging his shoulders with his arms spread out. His ID had been lost for at least a year — I think he said three years. I'm not sure I'll find him again.

I asked Gerardo if, considering his extreme privations, he'd thought of going back to Mexico. "I can't go back because I don't have my Mexican ID either!" he replied, chortling over the irony of his situation.

Here was this man, virtually a stateless person, rattling around Deming — a member of a small stateless colony. If this sounds to you like a scene from a Luis Bunuel movie, you're not alone.

It's hard to believe these guys can't figure out a way to get to El Paso to straighten out their papers. Another guy said it's too expensive for them to get a ride. But the black humor, the defense-mechanism smile, made Gerardo credible to me. He was so open, even giving me his full name.

This is just one more instance of the extreme contrasts and absurdities one sees over and over again at the border. But then, after living here for more than a decade, I wonder if anything can really surprise me any more.

While calling around in Deming for this article, I found a friend who had decided to start a shelter specifically for women and children. I've heard of past efforts to create a homeless shelter in Deming, which seem to have fizzled out.

I can only hope these good intentions take on life and breath before long.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.


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