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Richard Street | California, United States

Organization: Streetshots

Thirty years ago, while working as a photographer at California Farmer, San Diego, and other west coast publications, I spent several years on the U.S.-Mexico border, along Otay Mesa, in San Diego County, and around Calexico-Mexicali, in the Imperial Valley, and in the bushes near Vista, among people living in improvised communities tucked into the gullies and canyons. I was trying to capture aspects of life for immigrants headed north, mostly to work in the fields

Under provisions of the Special Agricultural Workers program (SAWS) of the Immigration and Control Act of 1988, anyone who could prove that he or she had done at least 90 days of farm work between May 1985 and May 1986 could gain legal status. Two programs were established. One, beginning May 5, 1987 and ending May 4, 1988, was for people able to prove continuous residence since January 1, 1982. Most migrants could not qualify under that arrangement. The other program – the SAW program – beginning June 1, 1987, and ending November 30, 1988, was for people who had been coming north to work in perishable crops over the years but lacked continuous residence in the United States.

I made these portraits of SAW applications over several weeks in five locations: 1) Behind the Customs House, about ten feet from the chain link fence separating the United States from Mexico; 2) In the Mexicali immigration tunnel, where hundreds of people packed in tight and on the nearby streets, where 20,000 to 22,000 SAW applicants were stranded; 3 ) Along the border, in Chapultapec Park, about five blocks east of the port of entry; 4) In a migrant help station at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Cathedral, where migrants were treated to meals and fresh fruit, tea, milk-rice drinks dipped out of huge glass containers; and 5) Inside the Calexico Customs House, where a giant bottleneck had developed as an overworked staff struggled to process 450 to 750 applicants per day. To complete their registration and entry, each SAW applicant had to fill out forms at a cost of $20, and a $185 INS registration fee. 

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