TOPICS > Economy

Concerns Over Immigration Crackdowns Lead U.S. Farms to Recruit in Mexico

June 3, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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In response to fears that stricter enforcement of immigration laws will create a shortage of farm workers, the U.S. agricultural industry has headed to Mexico to recruit temporary -- and legal -- migrant workers. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports on the farm industry's recruitment attempts and worker shortfalls.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, recruiting laborers from Mexico to work legally and temporarily on U.S. farms. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: Most days, Rene Urbano arrives before dawn outside the United States consulate in Monterrey in northeast Mexico. He comes to make sure his export business is running smoothly.

What Urbano ships are people. Working with agents throughout Mexico and with a U.S. placement firm, Urbano runs a company that recruits temporary laborers, mainly farm workers, for U.S. businesses.

Migrant workers come to Monterrey to obtain visas issued by the U.S. government. And as the lines and throngs of applicants outside the consulate indicate, the recruitment industry is booming.

RENE URBANO, Labor Contractor: Last year, we sent in like 2,000 workers. And this year, we’re going to send like 4,000 workers.

JEFFREY KAYE: Wow.

RENE URBANO: It’s double.

JEFFREY KAYE: Inside the consulate, staff members process the visa applications brought in by Urbano and other recruiters.

Many complain H-2A visas inadequate

Manuel Cunha, Jr.
Nisei Farmers League
We have a definite labor shortage problem caused by the issue of 9/11, which, of course, shutting down the borders. It's also caused a problem in which the Congress has not passed immigration policies or immigration laws.

JEFFREY KAYE: The U.S. government issues two kinds of visas for seasonal unskilled workers, one type, H-2A visas for farm workers, and another, H-2B visas, for other laborers.

In fiscal year 2007, the government issued H-2A visas for nearly 51,000 farm workers, a 70 percent rise over the previous four years. One reason for the increase is that for migrants the equation has changed.

AMADAYO HERNANDEZ (through translator): It's dangerous to cross without papers. It might be OK to be illegal for a little while, but this is better.

DANIEL RAMIREZ (through translator): Yes, of course. The price is worth it. A smuggler costs a lot, and you risk a lot when you go with them.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Monterrey consulate is the busiest one in Mexico for farm worker visa applicants. Nearby businesses and organizations catering to streams of customers offer food, lodging and transportation.

The U.S. has had temporary worker programs in place on and off since the First World War. But American farmers, particularly those in agricultural-rich California, haven't used the program much.

The farm industry complains the H-2A program is costly and bureaucratic. Employers have to deal with three separate federal government agencies, as well as with state officials.

And in the West, it's been easier to rely mostly on illegal migrants. The industry estimates that as many as 70 percent of farm workers are in the U.S. illegally. But farmers worry about the prospect of a dwindling workforce.

MANUEL CUNHA, JR., Nisei Farmers League: We have a definite labor shortage problem caused by the issue of 9/11, which, of course, shutting down the borders. It's also caused a problem in which the Congress has not passed immigration policies or immigration laws to deal with the workers that are here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Manuel Cunha, Jr., runs the Nisei Farmers League based in California's Central Valley. The organization, founded by Japanese-Americans, represents about 1,000 growers.

MANUEL CUNHA: The farmers are so scared that they're not going to have labor at all to harvest their crops, because of what is going on with the homeland security people.

JEFFREY KAYE: So growers and shippers, such as those attending this recent citrus association convention in California, are looking at the temporary visa program with fresh eyes. Along with displays from vendors counting improved production techniques were others offering a steady supply of workers.

MIKE NOBLES, Labor Contractor: I believe any farmer that wants workers, legal workers, can get them right now through the H-2A program. I believe it is salvation.

Recruiters often prey on workers

Castulo Benavides Rodriguez
Farm Labor Organizing Committee
And I ask them later, 'Who was that recruiter?' 'We don't know.' 'Where does he live?' 'We don't know.' 'Then why did you give them money?' 'Well, it's with the hope that they can get work.'

JEFFREY KAYE: As president of a Tennessee-based recruiting and contracting firm, Mike Nobles sounds like an evangelist for the burgeoning industry.

MIKE NOBLES: We take care of the workman's comp. We watch compliance. We have two attorneys who are H-2A specialists.

JEFFREY KAYE: Nobles recruits Mexican farm workers and hires them at $8.56 an hour. He supplies them to U.S. companies, which pay him $14.50 for each hour the migrants work. The difference is his expenses and profit. Nobles does not charge the workers.

Inside the Monterrey consulate, staff members fingerprint, photograph, and interview applicants. When they get to the U.S., they're supposed to be paid no less than federal or state minimum pay. Their employers can hire them only if they cannot find Americans for the same wages. By law, the H-2A must receive free housing, workers' compensation, and transportation.

But legal protections are not always followed. And the program has drawn complaints on both sides of the border.

In recent years, temporary migrant workers have found allies in the U.S. labor movement, a major turn-about for unions that long saw migrants as competition.

In their office two blocks from the consulate, Mexican staff members of the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee talk to migrant workers about problems with recruiters and about their rights.

The union represents some 7,000 migrant workers as part of a collective bargaining agreement with a growers association in North Carolina. The union's Castulo Benavides Rodriguez says farm workers too often fall prey to corrupt recruiters.

CASTULO BENAVIDES RODRIGUEZ, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (through translator): They say, "Hey, across the border there's work in the United States. Give me your money and your passports, and I'll call you later." And I ask them later, "Who was that recruiter?" "We don't know." "Where does he live?" "We don't know." "Then why did you give them money?" "Well, it's with the hope that they can get work."

JEFFREY KAYE: Union officials say their work is dangerous. Staff member Santiago Cruz was murdered in this office a year ago, and workers here suspect it was because he exposed corrupt recruiters.

The biggest complaints we heard from migrant workers in Monterrey were about the costs, totaling hundreds of dollars that they had to shell out to get work.

Monterrey's central bus station is a hub for many migrant workers going to the U.S. They arrive here from around Mexico and, once they've received visas, leave for a two-and-a-half hour ride to the border.

Ruben Bugarin, on his way to a Tennessee tobacco farm, said he'd spent $900 paying the recruiter for visa fees and bus fares. To afford that, he'd leased land, sold two cows, and borrowed money.

RUBEN BUGARIN (through translator): Well, if work goes well, it could take about a month to pay back my loan. If work doesn't go so well, maybe three months.

Government wants to streamline H-2A

Gregory Jacob
U.S. Department of Labor
If an employer located in the U.S. has been complicit...we could proceed against that employer to debar them from further use of the program or to charge them penalties for their program violations.

JEFFREY KAYE: Edward McKeon, who's in charge of the U.S. consulates in Mexico, says there's little they can do about excessive charges by recruiters.

EDWARD MCKEON, U.S. State Department: We're just hoping that people will kind of -- I don't want to say vote with their feet, but they'll follow their own interests, and the law of supply and demand will kick in, and better recruiters will get better clients.

JEFFREY KAYE: The U.S. Labor Department is proposing changes to the H-2A program. The department's Gregory Jacob says the proposals would, among other provisions, prohibit recruiters and employers from charging workers fees.

GREGORY JACOB, U.S. Department of Labor: If an employer located in the U.S. has been complicit, essentially, in charging these exorbitant fees, was aware or should have been aware of what the foreign recruiter was doing in violation of our program requirements, and turned a blind eye to it, or even encouraged it, we could proceed against that employer to debar them from further use of the program or to charge them penalties for their program violations.

JEFFREY KAYE: Jacob says the H-2A program should be streamlined. The proposed changes, many of them technical, have drawn mixed responses from farmers and farm worker groups.

Back at the bus station in Monterrey, Mexico, Bugarin explained he was making his eighth work trip to the U.S. He said his 10-month-long absences take their toll on his wife and three children.

"It's painful," he says.

As harvest approaches, a steady stream of buses carrying a thousand workers a day arrives at the U.S. checkpoint in Laredo, Texas. On this day, most of these men and women are on their way to onion farms in Georgia.

They'll be paid just over $8 an hour, as much as 10 times what they could make in Mexico. They'll return home after the crops are all in, but many will make the trip over and over again, lured by the rich farmlands of the United States.