A Guest-Worker Program That Does Well by Migrants

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

MONTERREY, Mexico -- If a quarry needs a migrant worker who can haul 50-pound loads of rock out of a mine, or a big landscaper wants to hire a man who'll mow grass from sunup to sundown for $8 an hour without overstaying his visa, Jeffrey West scrolls through his computer, clicks the mouse and fills the order.

West, an American who lives in Texas and runs an office here, provides a legal passageway to the United States for several thousand temporary Mexican workers every year, signing them up, helping them get visas, putting them in a database for companies in the north to peruse. Though the pay is low and the work grueling, he hardly has to go looking for willing workers.

"They find us," said West, 45, a matter-of-fact Midwesterner. "We don't have to go out and recruit."

West's secure database -- MexicanLabor.com -- contains photos and profiles of more than 20,000 Mexican men and a few women. Most are from rural villages, few have more than a third-grade education, some cannot read. Once they're in the database, West has his assistants look through, seeking workers accustomed to hard labor -- those who don't "look soft," he said.

West began LLS International eight years ago, and its history is, in part, the story of the modern U.S. guest-worker program. Once small and obscure, it has grown in size and attracted controversy. The role of guest workers in the U.S. economy is being hotly debated as Congress considers the largest overhaul of immigration law in two decades. The existing program admits about 158,000 guest workers each year. A bill before the Senate would more than double that number, and business leaders are pushing lawmakers to allow even more foreigners.

Call him a labor recruiter, and West bristles. The term is sullied. There are hundreds of recruiters in Mexico, including some who charge trusting workers thousands of dollars for nonexistent jobs in the United States.

With so many desperate for work, West occupies a powerful position as an American standing at the door to legal jobs. This month, he perched behind a computer at his headquarters in this busy industrial city, navigating the database, which assigns each man and woman a bar code so he can track their movements like FedEx packages.

David Sanchez Martinez sat in a cushioned chair nearby, hoping to become one of those bar codes. The pimply-faced 19-year-old borrowed $2,000 at a monthly interest rate of 30 percent from a loan shark in his hometown of Mazamitla Jalisco to finance his bus trip to Monterrey, buy food, pay the recruiter, pay the U.S. Consulate and -- if all goes well -- buy a Greyhound bus ticket to Richmond, where he'll push a lawnmower for hours each day.

"The pay is $7.75 per hour; $11.75 for overtime," Sanchez said, reading aloud the employment contract an LLS employee handed him. Ten times more than he can make in Jalisco.

Eager and strong, Sanchez, the father of a three-month-old baby girl, is only sporadically employed in his home town. He gladly paid West $160 for the chance to work in the United States. He would know in the late afternoon whether the U.S. Consulate accepted his application.

For that $160, West will do all the visa paperwork, arrange an interview with the U.S. Consulate and connect a laborer with an employer under the guest-worker program referred to by its legislative designation as H-2B, which allows about 121,000 migrants to work up to 10 months in seasonal industries. Many Mexicans also apply for H-2A, which admits 37,000 foreigners to tend U.S. farms and fields.

Complaints against some recruiters have resulted in lawsuits. One, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, alleges that recruiters charged Guatemalan forestry workers more than $1,000 and seized the deeds to their homes as collateral. Another class-action suit claims recruiters of laborers in Peru, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic required migrants to pay from $3,500 to $5,000 to work in hotel jobs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Their employment contracts required them to labor three to four months without pay to recoup the recruiters' fees.

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