Farm laborers already tend to earn minimum wage or more, experts say, so employers wouldn’t necessarily have to pay higher wages to guest workers than what they currently pay illegal migrants.
Still, some U.S. farmers and other employers fear that if the illegal workforce is granted legal status or “amnestied,”, many of those workers will seek jobs in less-arduous occupations.
Between 1942 and 1964, U.S. “bracero” programs issued 4.5 million visas to Mexican guest workers, and today some of the same U.S. labor unions that pushed to have the programs eliminated support bringing in more guest workers.
“We don’t want to see domestic workers displaced, but we also recognize the legitimate needs that U.S. growers have,” said Erik Nicholson, a national vice president of the United Farm Workers, which wants to unionize the Mexican laborers even before they arrive in the United States.
In turn, many growers now back the unions’ insistence that temporary workers have the freedom to change employers, instead of tying their immigration status to a single job.
Under the U.S. program for seasonal agriculture workers, there is no cap on the number of visas that can be issued. But many U.S. employers prefer not to use it because the system is slow and onerous, experts say, and they instead rely on illegal migrants.
Tailored to encourage return
Until 2008, Mexican officials here in Zacatecas state worked with the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey to select temporary workers and facilitate their visa applications. But despite safeguards, officials said the program was fraught with abuses, including recruiters who would bring workers north and “sell” them to other farms and employers.
When the U.S. recession hit and demand for seasonal workers fell, Zacatecas officials said they stopped working with the U.S. Consulate.
Now they work exclusively with Canada and plan to triple the number of workers who go north, where they earn hourly wages of at least $10, as much as they would make in a day back home. Recruits are screened by Mexican officials based on education level, skills and health, but 80 percent of the workers are returnees whose employers have requested to bring them back.
At the end of the season last year, all 274 guest workers from Zacatecas returned home from Canada, according to state officials and the migrants.
This, of course, was by design.
Only married men are eligible for the Canadian program, preferably those with young children, and their families must remain in Mexico. Another incentive to return home: a cut of the migrants’ wages is placed in a Canadian pension fund, receivable only if they return to Mexico.