LAREDO, Texas - Benita Tovar Tovar couldn't stop smiling as she stood, finally, in the United States.
She'd been up for nearly 24 hours, it was horribly hot, and she still had to walk five blocks to the Greyhound station for the early morning bus that would - after three days of travel - deliver her to a job in a crab packing house on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But she was jubilant.
"We just thank God because we crossed the border," said Tovar Tovar, 24, who will start her seventh season picking crab meat at Lindy's Seafood in Dorchester County next week after she's rested from the trip.
"We know our jobs are ready, and sometime we will get to Maryland," she said.
For Tovar Tovar, her sister Dora and three dozen other Mexican workers who traveled together, arrival here marked a tangible end to months of worry about jobs that are as important to them as they are to the Maryland seafood industry.
To enter the United States, the workers need a temporary visa from a program known for its citation in the law, H2B. Tovar Tovar and hundreds of other Mexicans with jobs waiting for them were at first denied visas because businesses in other parts of the country had used up the nation's quota of 66,000 workers.
But supporters of the program, led by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, got emergency legislation through Congress that paved the way for the Mexicans to return for several months of work in seasonal positions in tourism, landscaping, seafood and other jobs.
The wait for congressional action meant Maryland's crab pickers are getting here about six weeks later than usual. But the timing turned out to be fortunate. A cold, wet spring meant fewer crabs, and fewer crabs meant there wasn't much work to be done - until now. In the past week or so, the harvest has started to pick up.
"It worked out good," Terry Vincent of Lindy's said yesterday, happy that workers for his plant were finally en route. "It's going to fall in place," he said.
For the Mexicans, getting to Laredo shortly before midnight Wednesday meant overcoming setbacks such as higher fares, new customs and border-crossing fees, a charter bus that was never booked and being temporarily stranded in Mexico's most violent city.
Before sunrise, 150 or more workers had already gathered in a small park next to the U.S. consulate in Monterrey. Most had arrived after six-to-eight-hour bus trips from the their home villages, including the tiny town of Palomas.
They waited for word from the recruitment companies that helped them get their American jobs, such as the Virginia-based Del-Al Associates, and lined up for State Department interviews.
Under close scrutiny from security officers, the first of the day's 350 interviews began as workers trailed through a back door and into a twisting line of temporary dividers. Interviews seemed perfunctory. Many lasted 10 minutes or less.
Maria Agular Valdez, 46, is returning to a job for seafood processor Virgil "Sonny" Ruark Jr. This will be her first crab season after a 10-year hiatus caring for her elderly father.
She expects to clear less than $200 a week after U.S. taxes are withheld and rent is paid for a house she will share with 10 other women. Good pickers can dig out 40 or 50 pounds of fluffy crab meat a day, earning 10 times what Agular Valdez could make at home in her mountain village of 600.
"In Mexico, I can't even get a job at my age," she said. "It will take me some time and practice to get my speed back, but I am happy to be here."
Nancy Gomez, 22, said she was happy to leave Durango to earn more. At home, she worked nine-hour shifts in a factory that makes electrical cables for cars. There, she earned 400 pesos a week, a little less than $40.
After sailing through their consulate interviews before 8 a.m., the workers from Palomas and Durango were told they would get their visas by 5:30 p.m. and be on a bus to the border.
Many ate breakfast at a nearby cafe, La Confianza, - the trust. The owner offers a quick photo service for visas and has a restroom. La Confianza is one of scores of shops, street vendors and other businesses that cater to workers who must kill time waiting for visa paperwork.
Trinidad Tovar Tovar, a distant relative of Benita's who has made this trip from Palomas for 10 years, showed snapshots of her 8-month-old grandson. The baby will remain at home with his mother while Trinidad and her three grown sons, including the boy's father, spend the next six months working jobs in the states.
"My son was lucky; he got a job in March through a different visa program," she said. "Now I can work and all my sons are working, we will make things better. Things will change."
Later, most ended up at a nondescript office housing Del Al Associates. The recruitment company also sells bus tickets and offers ATM and money-exchange services. People can pay a fee to leave their luggage there as they shop or just wander Monterrey's busy streets.
With temperatures reaching 102 on Wednesday, many workers crammed a Del Al waiting room to sit in ineffectual air conditioning.
Some dozed or watched television soap operas. Others talked quietly in the shade of a second-story porch. So many people sought the shade of a cafe umbrella and a cool drink that La Confianza ran out of food.
Meanwhile, Juan Antonio Pena Flor, a lawyer who manages Del Al's Monterrey office, scrambled to pick up visas and passports. As workers boarded an air-conditioned bus, Pena Flor reminded them to "stay together, watch out for each other and be safe" on the 2,000-mile journey.
Workers pay more than $400 to get their visas, including fees to the U.S. government, bank and legal charges, and other fees. They complain that bus drivers sometimes treat them poorly on long trips, refusing to give them time to eat during fuel stops.
Others are more considerate, said Consuelo Morales, 52, who was traveling with her 22-year-old niece, Olivia Morales, from their home in Durango.
"Sometimes, if we have a good driver, he will take us to McDonald's, but other times the driver will get off for a coffee and tell us to stay on the bus," said Morales, who has made the same trip every crab season for 15 years.
This time, workers were angry because bus fare had gone up from $90 to $130, taking $40 that many had planned to use for food during the trip north.
They also expected to make the entire trip in a chartered bus, traveling together until they reached Cambridge, where they would be picked up by their employers.
Instead, passengers and their belongings (most carried just two bags to their six-month jobs on the Shore) were unexpectedly transferred to another bus when they got to the main terminal in Monterrey.
Three hours later, as they got off at the station in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, there was no bus waiting for them. After some wrangling, a driver was dispatched in a creaking old Trailways bus to drive all 40 workers, who were charged 20 pesos each, from the station to the border crossing to Laredo, Texas.
In Nuevo Laredo, drug gangs were blamed for gunning down the police chief last week. Most passengers, however, seemed to feel safe because of the dozens of federal police who carried automatic weapons and patrolled the city in trucks with machine guns mounted in the back.
Since Mexican buses aren't allowed in the U.S., all passengers were let out near the Bridge 1 Crossing to Laredo, and walked across the Rio Grande River carrying their luggage.
Once inside the U.S. customs office, each was questioned and some had their baggage checked. They were charged $6 to cross the American border.
By 11 p.m. in Laredo, the workers got more bad news - apparently, no one had informed Greyhound about the charter service, although each worker paid for the premium service.
Instead, they waited for the next scheduled bus, the 12:45 a.m. headed for Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore. Sometime this weekend, they're expected to arrive in Dorchester County.
These sorts of problems are bound to happen sometimes, said a stoic Jose Refugio Alevedo, 41.
For more than a decade, he left his wife and two sons in Durango for six-month jobs on North Carolina tobacco and Christmas tree farms. Last year, he steamed the Maryland crabs that the women pick.
"It is very hard to leave my family, but this is what we do - what we can do," he said.
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