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July 2002, Volume 8, Number 3

H-2A: California, South, Mexico

Ralph DeLeon, a custom harvester/FLC in Ventura county, brought 38 H-2A workers from Mexico to California to harvest lemons in March-April 2002. DeLeon said that H-2As are a substitute for unauthorized workers. In 2001, he said that 70 percent of the 700 workers he employed did not have Social Security numbers that matched the agency's records. DeLeon applied to DOL for certification in December 2001, received approval in February 2002, and the workers arrived in early March 2002. However, only 21 H-2A workers completed their contracts.

H-2A workers are guaranteed at least $7.56 an hour in California. DeLeon's H-2A workers earned piece rates that vary with the height of the tree and the size of the lemons-from $20 to $35 a bin for the lemons they picked. According to DeLeon, most earned $9 to $10 an hour. Workers, housed at no charge in El Campo de Piru, received meals for $8.18 a day. In 2001, seven California farm employers brought 304 H-2A workers into the state.

According to DeLeon, recruitment produced 22 interested US workers, but only two went to work. De Leon, who said he lost $3,000 in the deal, said he was "trying to provide an option to those workers who are risking their lives crossing the border and who come here only to live in deplorable conditions… I just can't understand why anyone would oppose it {H-2A program]."

Critics said there was no labor shortage. One said: "Show me a picture of crops rotting in the fields or going unharvested because of an undersupply of workers. This [H-2A] is a smokescreen designed to lower wages."

North Carolina. Two North Carolina growers who were previously fined for labor law violations were accused by H-2A workers in June 2002 of firing them, and thus ordering their return to Mexico, after they complained.

Georgia. Vidalia sweet onions are grown in 20 counties surrounding Vidalia, Georgia by 132 growers on 14,500 acres. Production is down 50 percent because of extreme temperature variations early in 2002. The crop is usually worth $80 million a year, but may be worth only half as much in 2002. Georgia onion growers began growing and marketing Vidalia onions in the 1980s, and won a federal marketing order designating the 20-county area as the only area that could label its onions "Vidalia sweet." As a result, Vidalia onion acreage expanded from 2,000 acres in 1987 to 16,000 acres in 1997.

On May 13, 1998, the INS launched operation "Southern Denial" in the Vidalia onion industry, apprehending 21 of the estimated 3,500 to 5,000 peak harvest workers, and leading to Congressional complaints of heavy-handed enforcement at harvest time. The INS operation was stopped after one day, and the INS agreed to suspend enforcement for the rest of the 1998 harvest in exchange for a series of employer changes for the 1999 season, including: (1) hiring only legal workers; and (2) making available to the INS employment records, including FLC-grower agreements.

The INS was widely criticized in 1998 for "bowing to grower pressure" and suspending work-place inspections even when it knew that illegal workers were being employed.

The GAO did a follow-up study of operation "Southern Denial" that stressed three points: (1) onion growers knew that many of their workers were illegal, and formed an organization, Vidalia Harvesting Inc, to obtain legal H-2A foreign workers; (2) growers abandoned the H-2A strategy when they learned that they would have to pay the DOL-determined prevailing wage of $0.80 per 50-pound bag of onions picked (growers maintained that the prevailing wage was $0.70 to $0.75 per 60-pound bag), and provide housing at no charge to domestic and H-2A workers; and (3) growers took little interest in where workers came from or went to--they told GAO that FLCs "and workers just 'show up' without advance notice" when they are needed (page 12).

GAO noted that there were 147 registered growers of Vidalia onions, the peak labor force was 3,500 to 5,000, and that growers did not want to spend money on worker recruitment. As one condition of approving the H-2A petition that was later withdrawn by growers, DOL insisted that FLC-recruiters in the Rio Grande Valley, where most onion workers are from, receive at least $8 per worker recruited. Growers thought this was too much, although one FLC in south Texas reported that onion growers could get plenty of legal workers if they were willing to pay recruitment fees of $250 to $450 a worker.

AgWorks, a Lake Park, Georgia-based consulting firm headed by Dan Bremer, helps agricultural employers import about 15,000 Mexican H-2As a year to harvest crops seasonally in the U.S. Southeast.

Speaking for the American Nursery & Landscape Association, Jerry Lee of Wight Nurseries in Cairo, Georgia in 2001 noted that the farm value of nursery, greenhouse and floricultural products was $11 billion in 1998, double the $6 billion of 1988, but said: "The nursery industry's greatest challenge is access to a stable and legal workforce," even though it offers "year-round or long-season employment." The reason for labor shortages is that, despite wages that "are competitive in the agricultural community… too few Americans are available or willing to perform manual labor outdoors."

He said the ANLA would like "a streamlined agricultural guest worker program [under which unauthorized workers would] to be allowed to adjust, over time, to permanent legal status by fulfilling a future work commitment in U.S. agriculture." The ANLA is a core member of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, which supports earned legalization.

Mexico. In 2001, some 56,000 Mexicans were admitted to the US with H-2A or H-2B visas to fill temporary farm and nonfarm jobs. Many of these workers are recruited privately in Mexico, by recruiters who often charge high fees. Several Mexican states are recruiting workers for US employers, including the government of Coahuila state, which borders Texas.

Zacatecas, the state bordering Coahuila to the south, began recruiting workers for US employers in 2000, and now about two-thirds of Mexico's 31 states have recruitment offices for US employers who have been certified by DOL to employ foreign workers temporarily. Some fear that the Mexican workers will use their visas to get into the US and then disappear, but Armando Esparza, director of Zacatecas' State Migration Institute, says that the Institute warns the Mexicans "they will be marked for life and will never be able to work in the United States again" if they abandon their contracts.

Kellermeyer Building Services, the largest janitorial company in the United States, based in Maumee, Ohio, and operates in 45 states, is reportedly recruiting janitors in Zacatecas through the Zacatecas government program. David Buentello, U.S. consul in Monterrey, Mexico -- the office that processes all H-2A visas --encourages the U.S. to use the Zacatecas government program to recruit workers in Mexico. Private recruiters, he notes, often charge migrants high fees.

In summer 2002, the city of Thornton, Colorado, a Denver suburb, employed 24 men from Zacatecas as H-2B workers to mow the lawns of city parks for $9.25 to $9.75 an hour.

Susan Ferriss, "Despite Terror Attacks And Visa Concerns, U.S. Firms Recruiting Workers From Mexico," Cox News, July 5, 2002. Fred Alvarez, "Picking a Fight Over Migrant Farm Labor," Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2002. Andy Furillo, "Guest labor again in use," Sacramento Bee, April 8, 2002. GAO. 1998. H-2A Agricultural Guestworker Program: Experiences of Individual Vidalia Onion Growers. GAO/HEHS-98-236R, September 10.

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