Mike Snapp works among the wispy, white blossoms in his family's apple orchard near Winchester this time of year, spraying trees, grafting tree limbs and selling Hereford cattle.

The blossoms are fading and tiny apples are bursting from their spring covers, and the Snapp family is preparing to hire 40 to 50 migrant apple pickers.

But the hiring practices of Snapp and about 50 other growers in Virginia are being challenged by Puerto Rico, which contends its residents are being excluded from the orchards.

Puerto Rico has sued the growers, arguing that federal immigrant-worker laws are being violated in the apple fields. The growers, the suit asserts, are violating the law by hiring Jamaicans to pick apples when U.S. citizens--Puerto Rican laborers--are available for the jobs.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether the Puerto Rican government has standing to sue the growers, and the outcome could affect the island commonwealth's efforts to reduce its 30 percent unemployment rate and raise its standard of living by finding jobs on the mainland for its residents.

If the Supreme Court rules that Puerto Rico has the right to sue, the case will return to the district court to be heard on its merits. If the decision goes the other way, the Puerto Rican claims "will never be presented," said Michael Semler, attorney for the Migrant Legal Action Program Inc., a nonprofit group that has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

The growers, who also hire crews from Florida, don't deny hiring Jamaicans, but say the Puerto Rican workers sent to them in the past were weak, didn't work hard, couldn't pick the normal 110 of the 40-pound bushels of apples a day and endure other miseries of the job. If they could do the work, the growers say, they would hire the Puerto Ricans.

The Jamaicans, the growers say, work so hard and long they sometimes have to be chased from the orchards after quitting time.

"The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is trying to get jobs for its citizens," said Semler. "It hurts their economy when their people are told in a group, 'You cannot work in the United States.' We believe American workers should be hired."

"We have nothing personally against them," Snapp said in the red brick office surrounded by the 550-acre orchard his grandfather started in the 1930s. "There is no doubt in my mind we're morally and legally in the right. I can see that they have a problem, but I don't see that they can alleviate that" by sending unqualified workers to the growers, he said.

Under the Wagner-Peyser Act, growers seeking workers circulate job openings locally, and if workers aren't available a federal network is used to recruit through other agencies throughout the mainland and U.S. territories.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows the hiring of temporary foreign workers only "if unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labor cannot be found in this country . . ."

Puerto Rico's suit, filed three years ago, initially was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, which said the Puerto Rican government didn't have standing to sue on behalf of a few of its citizens. The court agreed with the growers that the alleged harm was insignificant and that the Puerto Ricans could file individual complaints.

However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned that ruling in a strong opinion, saying the Puerto Rican government has standing because it is charged with developing the interest and welfare of its laborers.

"Puerto Rico's effort to strengthen its economy and to provide its citizens with a way of life comparable to mainland standards must be viewed from a clear perspective," the appeals court wrote. "The number of farm workers temporarily employed annually does not accurately measure the potential effect of the damaged recruitment efforts on all of Puerto Rico's citizens.

"The island's officials are coping with an almost unmanageable unemployment problem," the court continued. "It's economy is in dire straits. The morale of the average Puerto Rican citizen under the circumstances can be expected to be extremely low. Deliberate efforts to stigmatize the labor force as inferior carry a universal sting."

Meanwhile, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a suit against New York growers, who also have asked the Supreme Court to decide the issue.

Puerto Rico's complaint alleged that in 1978, when the island government started its push to find jobs on the mainland for its citizens, the Virginia growers fired or otherwise turned away more than 400 Puerto Ricans, whose transportation was provided by the federal government.

Puerto Rico alleged that the growers wanted to hire Jamaicans and discriminated against the Puerto Ricans by providing inadequate training, unsanitary living quarters, insufficient food and fewer opportunities for picking apples. The growers also were accused of requiring the Puerto Ricans to pick from the tops of trees--which is physically harder to do--after Jamaicans were allowed to pick from the bottom.

The growers denied those allegations. "They'd sit under a tree, run foot races, do whatever they wanted," Snapp said of the Puerto Ricans. "Someone told them they'd be paid if they worked or not."

According to Snapp, the Puerto Ricans were under the impression that conditions would be better than they were. "They were told the trees were only 12 feet high and they were up to 24 feet," Snapp said, and instead of living in the barracks-style, one-story cinderblock buildings six miles from his farm, the Puerto Ricans thought they would be put up in hotels.

The Jamaicans and Florida workers, on the other hand, regularly pick fruit, work hard and know what to expect, Snapp said.