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  1. #1
    Senior Member Brian503a's Avatar
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    May 2005
    California or ground zero of the invasion

    Immigration Reform Efforts Reinvigorate Support for Guest Wo

    Immigration Reform Efforts Reinvigorate Support for Guest Worker Program

    By Lee Romney
    Times Staff Writer

    September 18, 2006

    OCEANSIDE Gilberto Valiente Romero cringes at the memory of his 2003 journey. The long trip to the Arizona border from his village in the Mexican state of Puebla. The hike across miles of desert. Then the bruising finale, as he was captured on the U.S. side and sent back.

    But since 2004, the father of three has made the seasonal trek without fear of arrest, under the auspices of Oceanside vine-ripe tomato giant Harry Singh & Sons. Each year in June, Valiente travels at company expense to the northern Mexican city of Hermosillo and is put up at a hotel to await a guest worker visa.

    He then boards an air-conditioned charter bus, complete with movie entertainment, for the trip to Singh & Sons, near Camp Pendleton. For six months, he works the fields for a government-set wage, $9 an hour this year. Housing is free and his three subsidized daily meals cost $8.78. Come December, a bus takes him home.

    "If I could stay I would," the 38-year-old Valiente said while lounging recently in the dormitory courtyard. "But it's better this way. It's good to be legal."

    As border enforcement shrinks the labor force of undocumented field hands and immigration reform looms in Congress, growers have focused with renewed vigor on the need for a simplified federal guest worker program.

    For Harry Singh & Sons, which imported nearly half the agricultural visa holders in California last year, the federal program became a necessity in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. With half its fields on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, the company suddenly came under scrutiny by immigration officials. In a mid-harvest panic, having lost three-quarters of its workers, the company turned to the federal government.

    Singh & Sons' experience since then offers a close look at a program that growers and worker advocates alike agree is deeply flawed, yet crucial to comprehensive immigration reform.

    The farm's general manager is Luawanna Hallstrom, whose Punjabi immigrant grandfather, Harry Singh, founded the company in 1940. Saying the guest worker program has driven her operation into the red, she estimates that her current annual costs are 28% higher than they would be without it. But the promise of reform keeps her going.

    "I had always said 'I will never use the program until it's reformed,' " Hallstrom said. "But the only way we can farm now is because of it."

    Still, it was a rocky start for Singh & Sons in the fall of 2001.

    Growers must generally ask the U.S. Department of Labor to certify the existence of a labor shortage 90 days before foreign workers are needed. But the harvest was in full swing, so Hallstrom filed an emergency request.

    Fortunate to have on-site housing, as required for the program, the company hastily recruited workers in Mexico. If all had gone well, those workers would have been vetted and approved by the State Department and then bused to Oceanside.

    But the Department of Labor kicked the application back for revisions, and by mid-December, Hallstrom said, $2.5 million in tomatoes had rotted in the fields.

    "We were stumbling through it," she said of the program. "Honestly, it takes a few years to get the hang of it."

    Singh's second year in the program brought new difficulties. The law aims to protect U.S. workers by requiring that growers advertise the jobs widely and hire any qualified locals who respond, at the same pay and benefits as their foreign counterparts. But requirements that give domestic workers priority often collide with importing foreign ones.

    Singh's application proceeded more smoothly in 2002. But in a pinch while waiting for the laborers to arrive, the company found workers in the Coachella Valley and bused them to the fields daily, paying $6.75 an hour rather than that year's required $8.02 an hour and free housing the foreign workers would receive, a lawsuit later alleged. Then, five days before the visa holders arrived, the busing stopped.

    The company violated the law, a judge later ruled in a related injunction, by not offering the Coachella Valley farm hands the same deal as their imported colleagues. Singh & Sons settled out of court.

    Although Hallstrom declined to discuss that and other lawsuits in more detail, she said the program's complexities have caused her to retain both immigration and labor lawyers. "We learned, and hopefully everyone else will learn from us," she said.

    Still, she said, bureaucratic snafus have persisted. In 2004, the Department of Labor challenged Singh's ability to require that their workers not be color blind, something the company says is essential because the tomato crop is picked in seven shades from green to red. Although Singh eventually prevailed, the dispute resulted in a 45-day delay, which Hallstrom says caused crop damage.

    This year, the company was abruptly notified there would be a five-week delay because the Department of Homeland Security, which vets company applications, had moved its processing center. Hallstrom, a Schwarzenegger appointee to the state board of Food and Agriculture and a national immigration reform advocate, enlisted help from the White House, and her applications were quickly processed. But, she asks, "how many people can do that?"

    Still, experience has oiled the annual process, which begins when Hallstrom's cousin, David Singh, takes a trip through Puebla and Michoacan.

    The excursions draw him away from his job as field manager and are not cheap; he once stayed a month with 150 workers in a Hermosillo hotel, waiting out a delay. But returning workers who trust the company now spread the word to friends and relatives, allowing Singh & Sons to avoid third-party recruiters and their fees.

    In rural mountain communities, Singh finds men like Modesto Garcia Antonio, a diminutive farm hand with a dimpled smile from Puebla's San Jose Miahuatlan, who has never attempted an illegal crossing.

    Garcia, who wires most of his pay to his wife and three small children, is on his second stint in the Singh fields. Accustomed to picking corn and tomatoes in Mexico for 70 pesos (or $7) a day, he was easily persuaded to travel north after meeting David Singh on village streets.

    Workers in the U.S. with false documents have opportunities Garcia lacks, such as moving from crop to crop in search of better wages and conditions. Yet for those who have not yet crossed the border, the visa program is a rare open door.

    David Singh "said it was good to come with papers because you earn a good wage," Garcia, 27, said recently, as the smell of carnitas wafted from the barracks kitchen and a lone worker played billiards. "It costs a lot of money to cross alone, and on the news they say it's very hard. Many die."

    Hallstrom credits the two-story housing facility, built on company land in the 1980s for $2.5 million, for the farm's continued existence, because without it she could not use the guest worker program. Five new trailers nearby will soon house more workers, but for now Hallstrom pays for overflow employees to stay at Oceanside motels, a costly endeavor.

    "We are willing to take losses now, because we are buying time," said Hallstrom, who notes that a number of colleagues have scaled down operations or moved them south of the border. "On paper, you'd look at it, and say, 'It's not making sense.' But I spent 20 years on this issue, and I'm not willing to give up."

    She continues to push the federal government for a more grower-friendly program.

    Government-mandated wages, she says, should be brought into line with regional averages for each commodity. And she says growers need more flexibility in housing and a shortened period during which they must hire qualified locals, because hiring them in some cases means laying off foreign workers. (Worker advocates are fighting to maintain the wage and housing requirements.)

    For now, others who farm near Hallstrom's land say the program is financially out of reach for them.

    "There is no housing," said Peter Mackauf, general manager of Leslie Farms, which attempted to build some in Carlsbad several years ago and met fierce neighborhood resistance.

    Leslie Farms grows tomatoes, strawberries and other crops in an effort to keep a year-round workforce but pays mostly minimum wage. If strict enforcement compelled him to use the visa program, Mackauf said, he would have to raise prices.

    Worker advocates concede that a $9 wage is better than $6.75 and barracks housing better than the creek beds where some San Diego County agricultural workers still camp. Yet they remain critical of the guest worker program.

    California Rural Legal Assistance organizer Carlos Maldonado said his group has received reports from locally hired employees at Singh & Sons who feel outperformed by young all-male foreign workers. Imported workers, the local ones contend, have an incentive to work at excessive speeds without complaint: They want to be hired the following year.

    Reforms to the program are not likely to ease all concerns. Still, a proposal known as AgJobs, part of the broader Senate immigration reform bill, would streamline Department of Labor approval and scale back the wage rate to the 2003 level while it is studied. It would also allow employers in some cases to provide a stipend instead of housing.

    In return, worker advocates secured the right for guest workers to sue employers in federal court for contract violations. But their biggest coup, won by the United Farm Workers, was a program that enables the undocumented laborers to earn legal status if they commit to some continued work in agriculture.

    The legislative debate is lost on Singh & Sons' visiting laborers. By 4 p.m. on a recent afternoon, they were trickling back from the fields where they had started work before dawn.

    Mud-caked boots were piled in crates outside eight-man dorm rooms. Some workers tooled through the courtyard on bikes, the day's heat cut at last with a wisp of breeze. Most chatted quietly on benches and chairs or gathered in front of the 70-inch television screen.

    "It isn't worth it to be a mojado," said Moises Parra, 34, referring to illegal immigrants. He learned of the program on the radio in Altepexi and has worked in it for three years. "We don't pay rent, water, lights. It's good."

    Uniformed security guards patrol the compound, where alcohol is not allowed. The men are free to come and go on days off, even crossing into Mexico.

    The work is hard: A handful from the Michoacan community of Rancho San Gregorio couldn't hack it and had returned home, said 20-year-old Luis Saldo Morales. But the pay and legal status are enticing.

    Last year, 15 men came from the rancho. This year, word of mouth swelled the number to 30.

    "None of us had ever crossed before. We never wanted to," said Morales, who is housed at a motel in town.

    "It's almost like we're citizens, joked Morales' 22-year-old brother Fernando. "For a little while at least."
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  2. #2
    Super Moderator Newmexican's Avatar
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    May 2005
    Heart of Dixie
    We have a guest worker program. I noticed that when they bussed in the other workers, they paid them much less.
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