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Ahead of Trump wall tour, little change on US-Mexico border

CALEXICO, Calif. — The daily commute from Mexico to California farms is the same as it was before Donald Trump became president. Hundreds of Mexicans cross the border and line the sidewalks of Calexico's tiny downtown by 4 a.m., napping on cardboard sheets and blankets or sipping coffee from a 24-hour doughnut shop until buses leave for the fields.

For decades, cross-border commuters have picked lettuce, carrots, broccoli, onions, cauliflower and other vegetables that make California's Imperial Valley "America's Salad Bowl" from December through March. As Trump visits the border today, the harvest is a reminder of how little has changed despite heated immigration rhetoric in Washington.

Trump will inspect eight prototypes for a future 30-foot border wall that were built in San Diego last fall. He made "a big, beautiful wall" a centerpiece of his campaign and said Mexico would pay for it.

But border barriers extend the same 654 miles they did under President Barack Obama, and so far Trump hasn't gotten Mexico or Congress to pay for a new wall.

Trump also pledged to expand the Border Patrol by 5,000 agents, but staffing fell during his first year in office farther below a congressional mandate because the government has been unable to keep pace with attrition and retirements. There were 19,437 agents at the end of September, down from 19,828 a year earlier.

In Tijuana, tens of thousands of commuters still line up weekday mornings for San Diego at the nation's busiest border crossing, some for jobs in landscaping, housekeeping, hotel maids and shipyard maintenance. The vast majority are U.S. citizens and legal residents or holders of "border crossing cards" that are given to millions of Mexicans in border areas for short visits. The border crossing cards do not include work authorization but some break the rules.

Even concern about Trump's threat to end the North American Free Trade Agreement is tempered by awareness that border economies have been integrated for decades. Mexican "maquiladora" plants, which assemble duty-free raw materials for export to the U.S., have made televisions, medical supplies and other goods since the 1960s.

"How do you separate twins that are joined at the hip?" said Paola Avila, chairwoman of the Border Trade Alliance, a group that includes local governments and business chambers. "Our business relationships will continue to grow regardless of what happens with NAFTA."

Workers in the Mexicali area rise about 1 a.m., carpool to the border crossing and wait about an hour to reach Calexico's portico-covered sidewalks by 4 a.m. Some beat the border bottleneck by crossing at midnight to sleep in their cars in Calexico, a city of 40,000 about 120 miles east of San Diego.

Fewer workers make the trek now than 20 and 30 years ago. But not because of Trump.

Steve Scaroni, one of Imperial Valley's largest labor contractors, blames the drop on lack of interest among younger Mexicans, which has forced him to rely increasingly on short-term farmworker visas known as H-2As.

"We have a saying that no one is raising their kids to be farmworkers," said Scaroni, 55, a third-generation grower and one of Imperial Valley's largest labor contractors. Last week, he had two or three buses of workers leaving Calexico before dawn, compared to 15 to 20 buses during the 1980s and 1990s.

Crop pickers at Scaroni's Fresh Harvest Inc. make $13.18 an hour but H-2As bring his cost to $20 to $30 an hour because he must pay for round-trip transportation, sometimes to southern Mexico, and housing. The daily border commuters from Mexicali cost only $16 to $18 after overhead.

Scaroni's main objective is to expand the H-2A visa program, which covered about 165,000 workers in 2016. On his annual visit to Washington in February to meet members of Congress and other officials, he decided within two hours that nothing changed under Trump.

"Washington is not going to fix anything," he said. "You've got too many people — lobbyists, politicians, attorneys — who make money off the dysfunction. They make money off of not solving problems. They just keep talking about it."

Jose Angel Valenzuela, who owns a house in Mexicali and is working his second harvest in Imperial Valley, earns more picking cabbage in an hour than he did in a day at a factory in Mexico. He doesn't pay much attention to news and isn't following developments on the border wall.

"We're doing very well," he said as workers passed around beef tacos during a break. "We haven't seen any noticeable change."

Jack Vessey, whose family farms about 10,000 acres in Imperial Valley, relies on border commuters for about half of his workforce. Imperial has only 175,000 people and Mexicali has about 1 million, making Mexico an obvious labor pool.

Vessey, 42, said he has seen no change on the border and doesn't expect much. He figures 10 percent of Congress embraces open immigration policies, another 10 percent oppose them and the other 80 percent don't want to touch it because their voters are too divided.

"It's like banging your head against the wall," he said.

In Russia, suspicions over spy's poisoning point to Britain

MOSCOW — Since a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in Britain a week ago, suspicions about Russia's possible handiwork have run high — except in major Russian news outlets, where fingers point in the other direction.

Sergei Skripal, a former officer in Russia's military intelligence service GRU who was convicted in Russia of spying for Britain, and his adult daughter were found comatose on March 4 in the English town of Salisbury, where he lived after being freed in a 2010 spy swap.

While in the West, suspicions about who could be responsible have landed on Russia, in that country the response has been very different.

"If you think about it, well, the only ones for whom the poisoning of the ex-GRU colonel is advantageous are the British," Dimtry Kiselev, one of Russia's most powerful media figures, said during his Sunday news program.

The British motive? "Simply in order to feed their Russophobia," Kiselev posited.

Kiselev's weekly show on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, a mixture of admiring coverage of President Vladimir Putin and insinuations of Western deviousness and incompetence, is regarded here primarily as a voice of the Kremlin.

His segment about Skripal was in sync with a reflexive response of Russian officials to attribute nearly all criticism from the West to anti-Russia bias. The sense of Russia as the target of prejudice that unscrupulous politicians work to cultivate is a key element of Putin's popularity as he seeks a fourth term in a March 4 election.

Former special services agent Mikhail Lyubimov was quoted in Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia's most popular newspapers, as suggesting Skripal wouldn't have been worth the trouble of a hit.

"Skripal was sent to the West in a swap; that means he's absolutely uninteresting to us. He's a small-fry," Lyubimov said.

Komsomolskaya Pravda struck an almost facetious tone in the story.

"In Foggy Albion, the latest spy scandal with anti-Russian tones has ripened," it began. The article included a colorful Russian idiom for unfair accusations in a line that read, "It's obvious that, following the old tradition, all dogs will be hung on Moscow."

Russian media aimed at foreign readers have adopted the same tone of resentment and mockery as news outlets for domestic audiences.

"The British are well-known for their dramatic flair when it comes to stories of Cold War espionage and murder mystery. Think Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Agatha Christie," said a commentary on Sputnik News, a state-run English-language news site.

"But this week's episode of a former Russian spy being poisoned on a public park bench in a quaint English town has suspiciously a tad too much drama about it."

On Sunday, Kiselev suggested a possible connection between the poisonings in Salisbury, which British officials said resulted from exposure to an unspecified nerve agent, and international soccer's upcoming World Cup tournament. Russia winning the right to host the competition that runs from mid-June until mid-July is one of the accomplishments Putin can point to in his re-election campaign.

Kiselev suggested the poisoning could be a "special operation" aimed at justifying a boycott of the tournament.

Skripal wasn't much use to Britain as an exposed ex-spy, but "as someone who's been poisoned, who is ill, he's very useful," Kiselev said.

The program included an on-the-ground report from Britain. The reporter noted that Salisbury, the town where Skripal was lived and fell sick, is about a 20-minute drive from the Porton Down laboratories where Britain developed chemical and bacteriological agents.

"But in the British press and special services, there is no suspicion" of any British involvement, said reporter Alexander Khabarov.

On another state television station, Channel One, anchorman Kirill Klemeinov began a report on the case balefully. He had a public service warning, Klemeinov said, for anyone who dreamed of a career that followed in Skripal's footsteps.

"The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world," he said. "It's very rare that those who chose it have lived in peace until a ripe old age.

"Alcoholism, drug addiction, stress and depression are inevitable professional illnesses of a traitor, resulting in heart attacks and even suicide," Klemeinov said.