YAKIMA, Wash. — Calling itself la voz del campesino, the voice of the farmworker, Radio KDNA blares Mexican ranchera music across the Yakima Valley, a dry, high-desert valley lined with irrigated rows of Washington’s famous fruit trees. Every morning, an announcer at the Spanish-language public radio station reads off the names of orchards that are hiring, linking farmworkers with the growers who need them.
Like many farming communities in the West, Yakima County is home to a large Latino community. Forty percent of residents have roots in Latin America, according to the state. "We’re settled here, we have houses here, our families are here," says Erasto García, a farmworker who has lived in the valley for nearly 20 years. "And we do the hardest work: farm work."
As a legal United States resident, García is an exception to the rule in agriculture today. Farming associations openly acknowledge that at least 70 percent of their 1.6 million-strong work force is in the country illegally.
The system is a grand wink-and-nod. Farmers hire workers, fully aware that they might be illegal. But by the time they’ve verified the workers’ paperwork — a process that can take up to a month — the workers in question are often long gone. The workers live in constant fear of being caught, and the farmers end up flouting the law, but the system works: Each year, the fruit gets picked.
So last year, when Global Horizons, a California-based labor contractor, brought 150 legal guest workers from Thailand to work in two Yakima Valley orchards, it created quite a stir. The program has sparked a debate among growers, local workers and state officials about the impacts of — and the need for — foreign labor.
The Yakima fracas also offers a cautionary tale for politicians and activists on the national level, as the Bush administration and agribusiness push for sweeping immigration reform. Some of that proposed reform looks a lot like an expanded version of what already exists: the guest-worker program that is causing such a ruckus in Washington.
A little-known federal agricultural guest-worker program, called H-2A, lets farmers apply for visas to bring foreign workers into the country, provided there are no farm-skilled, legal domestic workers available to do the job. The H-2A program was authorized in 1986, but various forms of guest-worker programs have been around since 1943. They’ve been used mainly in the South and East, but have spread West in recent years. Over the past decade, the number of H-2A workers in the country has doubled, to over 50,000.
But it is a rare farmer who has the time and know-how to recruit and hire workers who live overseas. Most rely on middlemen, or labor contractors to do the job.
Labor contractors vary greatly in size and specialty, but they generally work directly with governments and labor recruiters in countries where there is a surplus of willing workers. After interviewing, hiring, and securing H-2A visas for workers, the contractors often shuttle them between farms around the country.
Guest workers are paid a special state-mandated minimum wage. In Washington, it’s $9.03 an hour, about $1.40 more than most domestic farmworkers are paid. And farmers pay an additional 30 to 40 percent on top of that to labor contractors for their services. Contractors make their money from these commissions. They also save on taxes, since the H-2A program waives taxes employers normally have to pay for social security and unemployment.
The system allows farmers to shirk responsibility for any abuses or injustices that occur, because the workers are the employees of the contractor, not the farmer, says Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Global Horizons, the Los Angeles-based labor contractor that brought the H-2A workers to the Yakima Valley, employs more than 600 agricultural guest workers each year on the West Coast, all men between the age of 25 and 39. They are recruited mostly from Thailand.
Applicants must pay fees to both labor recruiters and the Thai government before they can even get an interview with Global Horizons, says Michele Besso, staff attorney for the Northwest Justice Project in Yakima. That can add up to several thousand dollars.
To make sure the guest workers don’t "jump contract" in search of better jobs once they’re in the U.S., Global Horizons hires only married men who have children, and thus a clear incentive to use their tickets home. The company also requires them to put down some collateral, such as land or a house, which they would lose if they ran away, says Pranee Tubchumpol, the company’s director of international relations. And workers agree to have most of their earnings sent directly to a bank in Thailand, where the money is held until their return.
Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian says the company has had a 98 percent success rate with Thai guest workers. "After years of doing it, we realized that there’s nothing better than the Thai people," he says. "They’re humble, they’re respectful, and they go back home."
John Verbrugge, manager of Valley Fruit, a 2,000-acre fruit operation based east of Yakima, has employed teams of mostly Latino farm workers in recent years. But in the winter of 2003, the mild-mannered, fourth-generation fruit grower says he became concerned that the tightening security along U.S.-Mexico border would cut off the flow of workers from Mexico and Central America. That led him to contract out to Global Horizons, which provided him with 31 Thai workers during last year’s harvest.
The company and the guest worker program offered predictability and legality, he says: "I’m trying to be proactive. It’s a way to bring in legal people and get my crops picked."
Still, Verbrugge says the 45-day application process for H-2A visas is too cumbersome to address fruit growers’ needs, which vary widely with the crop being picked. He felt so strongly about it that he starred in a television commercial that aired across the state in May, paid for by Global Horizons. In the commercial, he appeared next to trees drooping with ripe cherries; he told the audience that he was short on pickers, and pleaded with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire to make it easier for growers to bring in guest workers.
Labor organizers and resident farm workers were livid. There is no shortage of workers, says Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest regional director for United Farm Workers of America: It’s just the free market at work. As long as workers aren’t tied to labor contractors, they are free to move from job to job. If growers want to keep their workers, he says, they have to offer higher wages and better working conditions.
The H-2A program has a provision that requires employees to prove that there are no legal local workers available, but farmworker advocates say labor contractors and farmers ignore it. The guest-worker program floods the local labor pool, they say, displacing local workers and depressing wages.
"I don’t know why they are bringing people from other countries when there are enough people here to do the work," says Gilberto Cantú, a farmworker from Yakima who landed a job with Global Horizons last fall. After he and a group of other local workers asked for a raise in July, the company stopped asking them to come to work. But the Thai workers continued on.
In July, Columbia Legal Services, a Yakima-based nonprofit, filed suit on behalf of local workers against Global Horizons, as well as Valley Fruit and Green Acre, the two orchards that have hired Thai guest workers in the past two years. The suit charges that the companies gave preference to the Thai workers over local workers like Cantú, in violation of H-2A.
Also, earlier this year, the State of Washington and the U.S. Department of Labor fined Global Horizons for violating provisions of H-2A that are intended to protect both U.S. and guest workers. The citations include operating without a labor contractor license, owing back wages to guest workers, failing to prove that there were no local workers to do the work, and housing guest workers in substandard conditions.
State labor inspectors found Global Horizons’ guest workers living "in overcrowded rooms without cooking or laundry facilities," according to a March letter to the Labor Department from Gov. Gregoire. She concluded that "the (H-2A) program’s implementation by farm labor contractors has resulted in the mistreatment of both our domestic and foreign workers."
"We made our mistakes, but we never mistreated anybody," says Global Horizons president Orian. He claims state regulators targeted his company because it was the first to use the H-2A program on a large scale in Washington. He says it is difficult to judge whether there really are enough people to do the work because the local labor pool is mostly illegal.
Global Horizons is appealing the fines, and Orian defends the H-2A program as "the only way to bring legal labor to the U.S."
Toward immigration reform
At least 415 people have died in the past year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border — a record high, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And as the death toll rises, so does the pressure to reform the nation’s immigration laws.
In August, President Bush announced his plans to push for a guest-worker program. "We’ve got people being smuggled across… and a network of forgers and document falsifiers that are trying to beat the system," he said. "It seems rational to me that ... there ought to be a way to let somebody come and do jobs Americans won’t do, on a temporary basis."
The administration will have to walk a tightrope if it wants to get the changes through Congress. It will have to cater to big business, which wants a reliable, legal, and low-wage work force; the easiest way to do that would be to offer amnesty to workers already in the U.S. illegally, as Congress has done several times in the past. But at the same time, Bush must answer to hard-line conservatives, who want tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws and oppose amnesty, seeing it as a reward for illegal entry into the country.
Several reform bills are already floating around Congress. One of them, sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would give illegal immigrants already in the country the chance to apply for guest-worker status and eventual citizenship, if they agreed to pay fines and back taxes.
A second reform bill — and the one that has the strongest support from advocates for stricter immigration control — looks a lot like the current H-2A program. Sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., it would give temporary guest-worker visas only to those who apply from abroad. Workers already in the country illegally would have to turn themselves in to be deported — with no assurance that they could come back legally.
A third proposal, called "AgJOBS," is a compromise crafted by representatives of agriculture, industry and labor groups. It likely has the best chance of passing. Sponsored by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the bill would allow about 500,000 farm workers already in the country to earn legal status. But it would also reduce many of the protective measures of H-2A, easing the burden on employers to prove that they are not displacing domestic labor, and freezing wages at their 2002 level.
All talk of immigration reform will likely be shelved while Congress deals with hurricane relief. Meanwhile, in Washington’s orchards, farmworkers are concerned about how new policies might affect their situation.
Fortunato Tapia, a farm worker who lives in Sunnyside, east of Yakima, came to Washington from Central Mexico 20 years ago, when he was 35. He was among the 2.7 million illegal immigrants granted legal status by Congress in 1986. He thinks the country is due for another round of amnesty.
"They gave us papers, but more people have to come to take our place," says Tapia. "There has to be another generation."
The author is a former HCN intern.