'In Mexico, they pay very little'

CRUMPLER, N.C. — There are millions of undocumented workers in America, and thousands of employers who illegally hire them.

But Rodolfo Benito Coy Garcia and Rusty Barr play by the rules.

Barr is an employer and Garcia his employee, one who travels from Mexico to spend 10 months of the year planting, fertilizing and harvesting Christmas trees in this tiny mountain town near the Tennessee state line.

For both, following the law has disadvantages. Barr must go through a lengthy, complicated and expensive process to hire Garcia, spending more than his competitors, who he says employ undocumented migrants. Garcia must leave behind his family for most of the year to work a job that pays little by American standards, with no chance of becoming a citizen in the country where he has spent much of his adult life.

"I miss my family, yes," said Garcia, whose wife and two daughters live in Tamaulipas, a Mexican state that borders Texas. "But we come here to support our families and provide our kids with a better education."

Much of the debate over immigration reform has focused on the millions of undocumented workers living in the U.S. But many say fixes must also be made to the programs that bring tens of thousands of guest workers to America every year to work at farms, hotels and restaurants. Such programs were among those that led to a standoff between congressional negotiators before their spring recess. (A tentative agreement reached over the weekend covered some low-wage workers but not agricultural employees.)

Employers say that the H-2A agricultural visa program, under which Garcia is employed, is broken, and that the complicated rules and high costs push employers to hire undocumented workers. Labor advocates say that the programs create a group of second-class citizens who are brought here to do grueling and often dangerous work without protection against abuses.

Placating both sides will be a challenge.

"There's no obviously correct answer as to how easy it should be to use this program," said Madeleine Sumption, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

These are not jobs generally sought by citizens. Last year, the North Carolina Growers Association, which helps farmers such as Barr fill out the H-2A paperwork, spent $98,000 on advertising for the 8,000 jobs its members were seeking to fill. Just More than 250 U.S. workers applied for the jobs, but 70 never showed up, about 180 quit in the first two days, and just 10 finished the season.

"That's the frustration; the whole program is set up to give preference to U.S. workers," said Lee Wicker, the group's deputy director. "But U.S. workers don't want to do these jobs, and I don't say I blame them."

Although the H-2A program is the only legal way to bring foreign farmworkers to the United States, most employers don't use it. H-2A workers fill an estimated 6 percent of U.S. farm jobs, the majority in states such as North Carolina and Georgia, where employers are hard-pressed to find anyone else willing to do the work. Undocumented workers fill most of the 1 million or more farm jobs open nationally every year; California, which hires more farmworkers than any other state, uses H-2A workers less frequently because its location close to Mexico makes it easier for employers to find undocumented workers.

Barr says it's easy to understand why only a handful of employers bring in guest workers. He spends $1,000 per worker for visas, consulate fees and transportation to North Carolina. He's required to pay for their housing, and he estimates he has spent more than $80,000 building a house on his property, plus $36,000 to buy a mobile home and $5,000 a year to rent an apartment for the 48 workers he employs during the growing season. The government makes him pay them $9.68 an hour, which is about one-third higher than the minimum wage in the state, and he spends thousands of dollars on workers' compensation insurance.

Costs aside, the process is a headache of applications and paperwork required by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor. Barr must go through lengthy steps to make sure no American wants a job before he hires a Mexican worker. He must place ads around the state and hire any American who wants to work, even if the job has already been filled by a migrant worker. The chance of violating a rule, even by mistake, is high, he says — a neighbor had to pay a fine of $80,000 last year.

Barr says these steps are worth it because he doesn't want to be raided by immigration officials and lose his crops. But the expense puts him at a competitive disadvantage with the other Christmas tree farms in the region, he says. Those that use undocumented workers pay the minimum wage and don't offer housing, insurance or transportation, he said.

For employers like him, "It's definitely a disadvantage to be providing higher wages," Barr said.

Barr helped six workers become citizens after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which allowed some seasonal agricultural workers to gain legal status. All left agriculture within two years, he said, for fields such as construction and trucking. (Only those who had resided in the U.S. since before 1982 and those employed in seasonal farm work during a certain period were eligible.)

Garcia and the dozen other workers sitting around the house on Barr's farm swear they wouldn't leave farm work if they became U.S. citizens.

Even without a chance at citizenship — and with the long bus ride, the crowded conditions, the separation from family — Garcia and others said they'd be happy to keep coming to North Carolina for 10 months of the year.

"In Mexico, they pay very little," Garcia said. "You work all day and you earn what you earn here in an hour. It's a big difference."

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