When Modesto Hernandez, 35, walks these days, he grips the curved handle of a brown metal cane to steady himself.
In 2008, Hernandez was pruning rows of raspberry canes in Whatcom County along the northern border. Red raspberries, as a commodity, are valued at $44 million in Washington state. The fields that day were covered with shin-high snow, and Hernandez was wearing rubber boots.
After he complained of losing feeling in his feet, the farmer he was working for provided no real or long-term assistance, he said. A week later, a doctor removed half of both of Hernandez’s feet.
At one point, as thoughts of survival swirled in his head, he told one person: “If you cut your feet off, I’ll put your feet in mine and I’ll go work.”
Modesto Hernandez stands in the living room of his apartment on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News
In 2008, Hernandez was one of an estimated 1 million undocumented immigrants who planted, pruned and picked crops in the United States. He helped ensure that U.S. agriculture – worth $297.2 billion as an industry – made it to homes worldwide. But Hernandez had little, if any, health and worker protection.
For more than 25 years, the United States has not addressed immigration policy, at least comprehensively, and the people that policy affects. But this year could bring significant change to a system that many dub as “broken.”
President Obama and federal lawmakers are considering various aspects of immigration policy, including U.S.-Mexico border security and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the country.
Guest Worker Program
As lawmakers study policy changes, U.S. farmers and ranchers are pushing for a new agriculture guest worker program.
The current guest worker program, which traces its roots to the bracero (day laborer) program initiated during World War II, enables U.S. farmers to recruit people in other countries for temporary or seasonal agriculture work if they can show a domestic labor scarcity.
Farmers say their new labor proposal would offer stable access to a legal workforce for the agriculture industry as well as flexibility and employment freedom for at least some guest workers. For undocumented agriculture workers already in the country, it could mean permanent legal residency.
The American Farm Bureau Federation says the proposal could replace the H-2A program, which the federation of 6.2 million farmers and ranchers calls rigid and bureaucratic. The H-2A program is the current policy for international agriculture workers in the country.
For the federation, a new guest worker program is one of two top issues for 2013, said Kristi Boswell, the organization’s congressional relations director. “It’s absolutely critical for agriculture and our food supply that we have a solution this year,” she said.
Boswell added that a comprehensive immigration bill might not succeed if it excludes a program for farmers to recruit in other countries. “This is a huge issue for our members,” she said. “They have stress. They don’t know if they are going to be in business next year.”
In late February, Bob Stallman, the group’s president, testified before Congress in support of a revised program. He talked about the federation’s members’ need to be certain they have an available labor force, competitive costs and offering workers protection.
Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker advocate in Washington state, however, questions whether such a program is needed at all. “Farmers have said that they have a skilled and stable labor force — that has been on their farms for 10 years — that they want to see legalized,” she said.
There are enough people in the country, Guillen added, to do the agriculture work, especially if immigration reform provides legal status for the undocumented. Guillen is executive director of Community to Community Development, a Bellingham, Wash.-based group devoted to supporting farmworkers, immigrants and food quality.
A man works in the fields of Whatcom County on Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Mike Kane for Equal Voice News
Farmworker and civil rights groups specifically point to documented cases of abuse, safety problems and wage theft in the guest worker program and agriculture industry.
This year, the Southern Poverty Law Center updated its 2007 report, “Close to Slavery,” which is a critical look at the country’s H-2 guest worker program. The report found that guest workers from other countries end up being sources of inexpensive labor. In many cases, critics say, they become expendable.
“Congress should look before it leaps,” the report reads. “It harms the interests of U.S. workers … by undercutting wages and working conditions for those who labor at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.”
One conclusion of the report: The current guest worker program should neither be duplicated nor expanded.
The categories of international guest workers and farm workers already in the United States can mix easily.
Farmers in the country need more than 1 million agriculture workers each year, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Boswell said, but they have “low access” to a stable domestic workforce. “We have come to rely on an immigrant labor force,” she said.
In fiscal 2012, the federal government issued 65,345 H-2A visas for workers, the U.S. State Department reported. Nearly 96 percent of those visas were handed out in North America. Ten years ago, in fiscal 2002, 31,538 H-2A visas were granted. In fiscal 1997, the number of H-2A visas issued was 16,011.
The United Farm Workers Union has told Congress that there are more than 1 million undocumented people in the country’s agriculture industry. Some lawmakers estimate that noncitizens perform from 50 percent to 80 percent of the work in U.S. agriculture.
Seasonal agriculture work is hard and labor intensive and can take place in remote areas.
Boswell expressed the farmers’ federation’s concern that undocumented farmworkers already in the country would leave the industry, should they gain legal status in a comprehensive immigration law. She noted that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave legal status to undocumented immigrants, and that, by the 1990s, farmers had difficulty finding field workers.
Although some parts of the country, such as California and the Southwest, might have enough people for seasonal work, other areas, such as upstate New York, might not, Boswell said. A guest worker program, she said, makes sense.
Last month, the Washington Farm Labor Association confirmed it had started recruiting 3,000 guest workers from Mexico. The association, which serves as a human resources agency for Pacific Northwest farmers, said growers brought in 4,000 guest workers to Washington state in 2012, according to the Yakima Herald.
Efforts to reach Dan Fazio, the labor association director, for comment were unsuccessful.
But Bellingham farmworker advocate Rosalinda Guillen asked: “Why are the farmers recruiting in Mexico? What is going to happen to the legalized work force or those who are going to be legalized? It’s like intellectual capital that you’re losing.”
And in an opinion piece for New America Media, Rick Mines and Ed Kissam contend that, after the 1986 immigration law offered legal status to undocumented immigrants, farmworkers who left the industry did so because of low wages and the seasonal nature of agriculture work — which made it difficult to support a family.
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