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Mexican 'guest workers' - A project worth a try?

By Ginger Thompson with Steven Greenhouse
The New York Times, April 3, 2001

NOCATEE, Fla. -- Perched like birds in the trees of a Florida orange grove, a crew of Mexican farmhands recently recounted the different routes they had taken to sneak into the United States.

About 10 years ago it was as simple as crossing a street, said Juan Sierra, 47, a father of five. He just waited in Tijuana until nightfall and climbed a fence into California.

Five years ago the passage got tougher as United States Border Patrol agents began sealing off urban areas along the border and immigrants began cutting trails through the desert.

"I walked eight days with only one bottle of water, because it was too hot to carry more," said José Palomares, 29, about his last journey across the sizzling Arizona landscape.

José Vásquez Cabrera, 42, added: "One of the men in my group was bitten by a snake. There was nothing anyone could do but leave him there."

But two years ago this crew of about 24 men found a new, legal way to enter the United States: they are among more than 40,000 "guest workers" employed in seasonal jobs on farms from North Carolina to Georgia, Arkansas to Idaho.

They are living models for President Vicente Fox's vision for his countrymen. Since winning the Mexican presidency last July, Mr. Fox has been pressing the United States to open the border to Mexican workers.

His campaign took a significant step forward in February when he and President Bush agreed to begin negotiations on a range of immigration policies. And in Washington on April 4, Mexican officials are to hold the first in a series of meetings to discuss migration policy with top Bush administration officials.

Mexican officials have said guest worker programs help reduce the number of workers who stream across the border illegally each year " an estimated 150,000 " and help American farmers who now depend on illegal foreign labor.

With Americans shunning low- wage farm jobs, 50 to 80 percent of the 1.6 million farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants, most from Mexico.

And, Mr. Fox has said, guest worker programs could save lives. More than 300 immigrants died last year, largely from exposure to the heat and the cold in their attempts to cross the border.

Not long ago American politicians dismissed Mr. Fox's notion of a more open border as a populist delusion. But the political winds are shifting. After 15 years of deadlock over the expansion of guest worker programs, American lawmakers and labor unions, together with growers, are proposing to make it easier to hire such workers.

One proposal, supported by unions and several state grower associations, would increase the number of seasonal farm workers to as many as 250,000 a year, from about 40,000, and grant many foreign workers legal residency in the United States.

On a recent visit to California, Mr. Fox told hundreds of farmworkers that he would press the United States to enact laws to give a blanket legal status to illegal immigrants already working on farms here.

During a news conference with President Bush in February, Mr. Fox talked about the new political climate. "There is a new attitude," he said. "There is a new way of approaching things, a much more positive approach to things on issues of migration."

Bush administration officials say that while the president is interested in the various guest worker proposals in Congress, he has opposed an amnesty.

The call for more foreign guest workers has been compared to the pleadings for labor that prompted the bracero program in the United States during World War II.

The aim was to keep farms and railroads functioning while Americans went to war. It allowed some four million Mexican braceros " the term is derived from the Spanish word for arm " into the United States from 1942 to 1964.

After the program ended, the United States continued to let some guest workers into the country with a range of temporary visas including the current seasonal worker visa known as H2-A.

But almost from their inception, temporary visa programs have been attacked by immigrant and labor advocates for fostering a class of low-paid workers vulnerable to abuse. Recent efforts to pass similar legislation have failed because of union concerns that such programs would make it more difficult for Americans to get jobs and would push down agricultural wages.

Bruce Goldstein of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group for migrant farmers, says most guest workers do not complain about wage and safety violations, unsanitary living conditions and harassment by their employers, because they fear being sent home.

Greg Schell, of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, a different advocacy group, adds that temporary workers are "held hostage" by their visas, which do not allow them to move from one employer to another for better job conditions.

"What we are saying to Mexico," Mr. Goldstein said, "is that when you look at the kinds of guest worker programs you want, then what you should look for is something better than what exists now. Essentially, there is no difference between an undocumented worker and a guest worker; neither one is treated fairly. Neither status should be accepted in this country."

Remembering their illegal trips across the border, the guest workers in Florida described their legal status in a decidedly positive light. Mr. Vásquez, a father of three from President Fox's home state, Guanajuato, did complain that he worked 10 hours a day while his pay stubs reflected earnings for fewer hours.

But in the end, he said, he makes in a day what he would have made in a week in Mexico. His American employers provide him a decent place to live, rent-free. And the job gave him safe and legal passage to the United States.

"I don't have to risk my life anymore to support my family," Mr. Vásquez said. "And when I am here," he said, gazing out at the Florida grove around him, "I do not have to live in hiding."

One guest worker proposal, promoted by Representative Howard L. Berman, Democrat of California, and Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, would eliminate many requirements on American farmers to demonstrate a genuine labor shortage before they can hire guest workers. Bob Vice, president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, has called such requirements a "bureaucratic nightmare."

The Berman-Smith proposal would allow growers to provide housing vouchers instead of actual housing. And it would allow foreigners who have been employed in agriculture for at least 360 days in the previous six years to qualify for legal residency in the United States.

Senator Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas, is expected to present Congress with a competing plan that would expand the use of foreign guest workers in various industries, including retail sales, tourism and construction. But his aides have said the proposal will not include a provision for granting the temporary workers legal residency.

The United States and Mexican governments are expected to review the different proposals as they negotiate a joint "migration working group."

Like Senator Gramm, Mexican officials are eager to expand guest worker programs in various industries. But they also support the Smith-Berman proposal to give migrant workers legal residency. "In many instances the H-2A programs are satisfactory, and in many they are not," said Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castañeda. "The expansion has to go in the direction of those programs that are satisfactory."

Here in the Florida orange grove, music by Los Tigres del Norte blared. Only campesinos like them, the workers said, could sing while enduring the physical demands of the orange harvest, hauling 80-pound sacks of fruit from the top of a tree down to a tub the size of a Jacuzzi.

For six days a week they worked from before sunup until sundown, a minimum of 10 hours a day. But a review of their pay stubs showed that most of them were paid for far fewer hours, and although they all arrived and left the groves on the same bus, each was paid a different amount.

Rafael Ramírez Calderón's paycheck for the previous week indicated that he had been paid for 39 hours. José Palomares was paid for 28 hours. And Renato García Rivera was paid for 49 hours.

Their employer, Steve Sorrells of Sorrells Brothers, explained that the workers were not paid by the hour. He said they made $8 for each tub they filled with oranges. Mr. Sorrells said counting his workers' tubs was a more accurate gauge of their labor than the number of hours they spent in the groves.

"Those guys aren't working all the time," Mr. Sorrells said in an interview in his office. "Some of them take breaks in the morning, or they take long lunches or they take breaks in the afternoon.

"Under our system, the ones who work hard make good money. The ones who don't, don't."

When asked how long a break they usually took for lunch, the workers looked puzzled. Renato García Rivera, 23, a native of the central Mexican state of Morelos, said, "We may stop our work for a few minutes to eat a taco, but there is no real time for breaks."

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