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Farmers And Advocates Want Guest Worker Reform

Day Laborers in Agriculture

Adrian Florido, a reporter for Fronteras Desk, talks to KPBS about day laborers working in agriculture.

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Farmers And Advocates Want Guest Worker Reform

Farmers And Advocates Want Guest Worker Reform

Photo by Adrian Florido

Noel Stehly, an organic citrus and avocado farmer in northern San Diego County, says he's never tried to bring in guest workers because the process is cumbersome and expensive.

SAN DIEGO -- As talk of immigration reform heats up, overhauling the nation’s guest worker program as part of an immigration reform package has become a top priority for the nation’s farm lobby. They say making it easier to bring in foreign labor is more important than ever as domestic farm labor has become scarce in recent years.

Noel Stehly said his organic farm is an example. It’s at the end of a winding country road an hour north of San Diego. It’s 200 acres, but his crops, mostly orange and avocado groves, stretch out in rows across just 110 of those acres.

“I’ve had to cut back on what I plant in my fields. I’ve decided not to harvest some things because I couldn’t get the labor to do it,” he said.

It’s been a common complaint among farmers for the last three to four years: The economy and tougher immigration enforcement have sapped the local workforce dry.

In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem. A federal guest worker program called H-2A allows Stehly, or any farmer in the nation, to bring in as many temporary foreign workers –- say, from Mexico –- as they need.

But Stehly hasn’t even considered it. Instead, he relies on a core team of longtime employees to recruit friends and family for seasonal labor when it’s harvest time. He said the H-2A program is cumbersome and expensive.

“Sure the H-2A program says go ahead and bring farm workers in, but the H-2A program doesn’t work,” said Eric Larson, director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, which represents San Diego farmers.

To participate in H-2A, farmers have to prove to the Labor Department that they tried to hire U.S. workers but couldn’t. They have to transport guest workers from their home country, provide housing and three meals a day. They also have to show their guest workers won’t depress local wages, among other requirements.

All this means lots of money, paperwork and often, attorneys.

“Consequently nobody uses it,” Larson said. “I think we have one farmer in San Diego County that uses the H-2A for about eight workers, where in reality we have 10,000-12,000 farm workers in San Diego County.”

Nationally, farmers recruit about 55,000 H-2A workers each year, mostly in Florida and the Midwest.

But farmers want to make bringing in guest workers easier. What Larson wants is simple: a card that would let Mexican farm workers cross the border when needed, and return home when farmers’ seasonal needs end.

But that proposal is meeting resistance, largely from groups concerned that a liberalized guest worker program could hurt workers.

Photo by Adrian Florido

Eric Larson directs the San Diego County Farm Bureau. He says Mexican farm workers should have a card that lets them cross the border as they're needed, and return to Mexico when seasonal needs are over.

They point to stories like a farmer in Oceanside, north of San Diego, who wouldn’t give his name so as not to jeopardize his chances of getting hired to pick tomatoes next summer.

He’s picked fruit in San Diego since he arrived illegally in the 70s. He became a citizen when Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty, and for years he’s picked on a large tomato farm that has used temporary H-2A workers.

He said working alongside guest workers has increased pressure to pick fruit quickly. The contracted guest workers are young and expected to work fast, for long hours, and he said that puts pressure on older, local workers like him.

“The bosses tell us, ‘move it, move it!’” he said. “We have to keep up with the contract workers.”

But he said it’s impossible for older workers like him to keep up, and he worries that because of that, his working days on that farm may be numbered.

Cynthia Rice is an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides legal aid to farm workers. She said that worker’s story highlights the threat H-2A poses to both guest workers and U.S. farm workers.

“The H-2A program still creates a second class of workers,” Rice said.

Under H-2A, guest workers are bound to the employer that recruited them, and aren’t allowed to seek work elsewhere if they’re mistreated, overworked or underpaid. They’re legally protected against abuse, but in practice, Rice said, most workers have little recourse in such cases except to endure or go home.

“The H-2A worker can’t really vote with his feet,” she said.

She said that captive work force makes it easy for an employer to impose grueling production demands on guest workers, who have no choice but to meet them. That’s also bad for older, slower workers like the one from Oceanside, who fear being replaced for not keeping up.

Concerns of abuse and displacement of local workers are driving some advocacy groups across the country to oppose any kind of guest-worker program. They say that contrary to farmers’ claims, labor is available, and their focus is on legalizing the millions of undocumented people already in the U.S. so they can fill these jobs, and possibly demand higher wages.

But industry and farmers say they have to remain competitive, and say their ability to bring in efficient guest workers is key to that.

Broken Border: Immigration Reform in the Southwest

Our series, Broken Border, peels apart the complex tangle of the immigration debate to explore what matters.

A reformed and expanded guest worker program is widely expected, which is why some advocates are pushing for more worker protections.

Noel Stehly, the citrus and avocado farmer, says what’s clear to him is that he needs the work, and the proof’s in his farm operating below capacity.

“How come that’s so tough? Because our politics doesn’t want to do it,” he said one recent afternoon.

Now, for the first time in a long time, it looks like politicians are serious about tackling the issue.