Immigrants wait for the ‘blue card’ |

Immigrants wait for the ‘blue card’

Makiko Kitamura

WASHINGTON (Medill News Service) ” Lionel Moncada is a farm worker from Mexico who packages onions and lettuce collected from farms in Weld County.

Thanks to his employer, he has a temporary work visa that allows him to go home to visit his family at the end of the harvest season with the assurance that he can return to the U.S. next summer.

But many of his fellow workers are not as lucky, and Moncada has been following the immigration reform debate in Washington closely. This week, a House committee debated the merits of an expanded guest-worker program included in the Senate version of the immigration bill, which passed in May.

“I know people who have been working here for 10 years or more,” Moncada said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “They can’t go home because they don’t have a visa and they’re afraid they won’t be able to come back.”

Drafted with the help of the United Farm Workers union, the guest-worker provision would give temporary legal status to agricultural migrant workers who have worked in the United States for 150 days within a two-year period, ending Dec. 31, 2005.

Workers, who have no criminal record and can prove their employment history, would be granted a temporary “blue card,” even if they entered the country illegally. Those who continued to work in the U.S. could gain permanent residency and eventually apply for citizenship.

A House-approved bill has no guest worker provision and some Republicans have denounced the Senate plan as “amnesty” for those who came into the United States illegally. Lobbyists and advocates on both sides of the issue are waiting for a joint conference committee to work out a compromise between the two versions of the immigration bill.

According to Jennifer Lee, managing attorney with the Colorado Legal Services’ migrant farm worker division, the path to legal status is what workers care about most.

“It’s the first thing they ask about when we talk to them,” Lee said.

With a blue card, moreover, workers would be free to change jobs if they face adverse workplace conditions, without fear of being deported.

These new provisions are significant improvements on the “Bracero” guest-worker program that brought in Mexican workers to the U.S. between 1942 and 1964, said Deborah Meyers, senior policy analyst of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

“That program looked great on paper, but oversight and enforcement was where it failed,” Meyers said. The program was largely shut down because of wage and workplace abuses.

But Lee also said that the proposal in Congress does not address the fact that many agricultural migrant workers without proper visas have little or no legal protection against employers who pay paltry wages or break promises of housing or transportation.

State legal services are given federal money to defend the rights of workers with temporary farm work visas, called H-2As.

On the employer end, the Senate bill aims to improve the H-2A visa program to encourage more employers to get them for new workers.

Nationally, only about 30,000 H-2A visas are issued each year, said Craig Regelbrugge of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform in Washington. That accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent of the overall agricultural workforce.

To boost that number, under the Senate proposal, the visa application process would be streamlined to reduce paperwork and waiting time for employers.

“We made it an easier and quicker process without compromising labor protections,” said Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers.

Greeley farm owners like Dave Petrocco said the “months of red tape” under the current system has been a major deterrent in obtaining H-2A visas for his workers.

But the real sticking point is wages. The lowest wage Petrocco pays is $6.95-an-hour, which is above the state minimum wage of $5.15. But it is still below Colorado’s “adverse effect” wage rate of $8.37, required for all foreign workers with H-2A visas.

Since American workers are not subject to the adverse effect wage, the system is designed to encourage growers to hire American workers, who can be paid below that wage.

Growers contend the formula does not accurately reflect competitive prevailing wages for the seasonal jobs they need to fill. More importantly, it doesn’t take into account a shortage of American workers.

Thus, most employers opt out of the H-2A system and pay immigrants much lower wages. In particular, they take advantage of the fact that farm work, unlike most industries, is exempt from minimum wage regulations.

“No informed person seriously contends that wages, benefits and working conditions in seasonal agricultural jobs can be raised … while maintaining the economic competitiveness of U.S. producers,” said Luawanna Hallstrom, a California tomato grower, during a House committee hearing Wednesday.

Not true, said Steven Shulman, labor economist at Colorado State University.

“Labor costs are a relatively small percentage of overall costs to farmers,” Shulman said, adding that higher wages would not raise consumer prices as much as people think.

University of California at Davis economist Philip Martin argues that after the Bracero guest-worker program ended in 1964, wages rose 40 percent. Yet the agriculture industry continued to grow.

“Low wages benefit the affluent and middle classes and hurt American workers,” Shulman said. “For workers, wages are more important than prices.”

Shulman is dubious that revising the cumbersome adverse effect wage rate formula is the solution, but supporters argue that it is the best option available.

“Prevailing wages are the centerpiece of how we measure whether foreign workers are needed, a way to achieve the correct balance of U.S. and foreign workers,” said Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project.

Lionel Moncada may be proof that the wage rate is workable, as he is paid $8.50 an hour, slightly above the $8.37 Colorado rate, for his job as a vegetable packager.

Farmers may not be thrilled with the prospect of paying higher wages. But Regelbrugge said most of them would prefer a new guest-worker program to another reform under consideration ” a requirement for employers to verify the legal status of all workers.

An employment verification program, included in both the House and Senate versions of the immigration bill, would stiffen penalties for employing illegal workers and require all businesses to use an upgraded employment eligibility system for new hires.

Regelbrugge and others say that 75 percent of U.S. farm workers do not have valid legal documents allowing them to work in this country. Meanwhile, farmers are concerned about a profound shortage of American seasonal farm workers.

“The industry would crash if we had to abide by an employment verification program,” he said.

For workers like Moncada, the guest worker program is a family-friendly plan that gives people like him some security. He says he also hopes it will “improve relations between the United States and Mexico.”

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado

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