Friday, March 20, 2015



Note: Yes, legal immigration, seasonal employment, can work. The Bracero program not perfect, but overall worked well.

Thousands come to Nogales on way to temporary work
From the front: Alejandro Torres Villella, 40, Luis Angel Gonzalez Reynaga, 22, and Juan Carlos Temblador, 23, all temporary workers from a mid-size town in Nayarit, Mexico, are on their way to Chinook, Mont. where they will be calving on a ranch. Gonzalez said they were told they would be paid around $1,100 biweekly.

Posted: Friday, March 20, 2015 8:11 am | Updated: 9:14 am, Fri Mar 20, 2015.
By Murphy Woodhouse
Nogales International

To keep out of the rain, dozens of Mexican men leaned against the walls of the downtown Burger King Wednesday night as they waited for 15-passenger vans to come and pick them up.

They kept a close eye on their tightly packed suitcases, which contained most of what they would need for the next six or more months as they work as temporary employees for U.S. farms and businesses as far flung as Slidell, La.; Rupert, Idaho and Chinook, Mont. Some would complete their journey by van, others by plane.

Miguel Angel Cabrera, a 21-year-old from the central state of Guanajuato en route to Idaho to lay irrigation in alfalfa and potato fields for the fourth year running, was on the phone with family members. He wanted to let them know he had made it safely to the United States and that he'd soon be hard at work with his father and sending money home.

"It's a good opportunity, and you've got to know how to take advantage of it," Cabrera said of the temporary worker program that had brought him across the border.

The crowd at Burger King was just a small slice of the Mexican nationals who work seasonally in the United States on any given year on either H-2A visas, which are for agricultural work, or H-2B visas, which are for any other temporary work. Last year, U.S. consular offices in Mexico issued about 155,000 such visas, roughly 57,000 of which were for non-agricultural work, according Julianne Parker, a vice consul in Monterrey, Mexico.

Nearly 310,000 H-2A and H-2B visa holders were admitted into the country in Fiscal Year 2013, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. Nationals from 63 countries are allowed to participate in the program, though Mexicans are far and away the most represented nationality, according to Parker and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which helps manage the programs.

While the lion's share of temporary Mexican workers are processed at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, a little shy of 10,000 come through Nogales each year and are largely destined for agricultural work in the Western United States, said Megan Phaneuf, section chief for the U.S. Consulate in Nogales, Sonora. Few are from Sonora, she added.

"They typically come from Southern Mexico," Phaneuf, said. "We're not seeing a lot of homegrown workers that are coming from Sonora. We're going to see folks from Michoacan, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Nayarit, Jalisco; the southern states of Mexico."

Most of those at the Burger King Wednesday night were from Sinaloa and on their way to gardening work in Louisiana.

With growing seasons starting across the country as temperatures rise, seasonal workers become a common sight in the spring at the fast food restaurant, as well as at the nearby McDonald's, which also functions as a spot to catch vans.

Though in town only briefly, the seasonal workers' presence can be felt at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, where groups of 50 or more line up almost nightly in peak season, and in Nogales, Sonora, where hotels and other businesses cater to the annual influx.

Rules to follow

To bring in temporary workers from abroad, U.S. employers have to prove several things to the Department of Labor before they can submit a petition with USCIS.

Most importantly, they must show that there aren't enough "able, willing, qualified, and available" U.S. workers to fill the jobs at the advertised wages, according to the DOL website. They must also demonstrate that the temporary workers will not adversely impact the wages of "similarly employed U.S. workers" and that their positions are temporary.

"When they've certified all that they can come to Mexico and try to find other workers and those workers are tied to the employer that is petitioning for them," Parker said.

H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 annually, though there is no limit on agricultural visas, which have risen dramatically in recent years. More than 204,000 were issued in FY 2013, compared to less than 50,000 in the mid-2000s, according to government data and several reports on the programs. That figure represents a significant part of the roughly 2.6 million workers directly employed by farms.

In FY 2014, there were 5,488 employer petitions for H-2B workers and 6,672 for H-2A, the vast majority of which were quickly approved, according to data from the DOL's Office of Foreign Labor Certification.

For their part, Mexican workers who have been selected by employers or intermediaries have to go through several days of interviews, fingerprinting and other processes at U.S. consular offices before their visas are issued. Though some pay middlemen for assistance with paperwork, most of the costs are borne by employers.

"These workers don't have to pay to get put on these petitions... They don't have to pay for their visas, they don't have to pay for their transportation," Phaneuf said, adding that housing costs are also frequently covered. Parker clarified that only H-2A employers are required to cover visa and transportation costs, though many H-2B employers do nevertheless.

The workers interviewed for this story mostly cited anticipated wages of around $10 an hour, vastly outstripping the $10 they said they could earn in a day in their home communities. Parker said that temporary worker employers are held to minimum wage laws, and even those who pay piece rates must ensure that the money earned never falls below state or federal wage floors.

Cabrera said much of his money was going towards a house that is still under construction back in Guanajuato.
"It's coming together little by little," he said. "It will be two more years until it's finished."

Fair treatment

Over the roughly century-long history of formal temporary work programs in the United States, the arrangements have been criticized for putting foreign workers at the mercy of exploitative employers and lowering the wages and working conditions of U.S. employees.

During the Bracero Program, which lasted from 1942 to 1964, more than 4.5 million Mexicans worked temporarily in the United States. While many made good money that went back to families in Mexico, complaints of withheld wages, poor work and living conditions, heavy debts to company stores and other illegal practices were widespread.

Analogous criticisms have been made of the H-2 programs by groups like Farmworker Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which described them as a "modern-day system of indentured servitude" in a recent report. However, Parker and Phaneuf said there are policies in place to prevent the worst parts of that history from being repeated.

Parker said that consular offices can ask USCIS to review petitions if they hear complaints from workers about specific employers.

"We always ask them about their working conditions," she said. "Generally most of the good information we get is from guys who changed companies."

If sufficient evidence is gathered, petitions can be revoked for a year, which can spell significant crop losses or production declines for employers. However, Parker added that it "requires a lot of information" to do so.

"It's only a temporary fix on our end, but it is a pretty big detriment to the farmers or employers because they're not getting any workers," Parker said. "It is a pretty big tool that we have."

Additionally, consular staff can request that the DOL inspect employers if they believe there is sufficient reason to believe that abuses are occurring, though the department's staff for such inspections is "pretty small," Parker said.

When asked, none of the returning workers interviewed said that they had been mistreated by their employers and most said they intended to continue doing the work for the foreseeable future.

For Elvio Miranda, a 53-year-old from a small town in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, temporary work in the U.S. is a desirable alternative to low-wage lime picking at home, as well as crossing the border illegally in search of work.

"I don't want to have trouble with migration," Miranda said, referring to federal immigration agents.


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