PESHASTIN, WASH. -- Every summer for years, like snow birds returning north, the Mexicans would arrive magically on cue at Dave Parsons' orchards and the apple harvest would be assured.

They were undocumented workers from the distant state of Oaxaca, crossing the U.S. border at considerable risk and cost, desperate for work and money.

Like thousands of other fruit and vegetable growers in the verdant valleys that snake through central Washington, Parsons asked few questions. He hired the men who came unannounced, paid them well, treated them with consideration and sent his apples and pears to the American supermarket.

But this year it is different. The Mexicans are not showing up in the usual numbers. Fear, confusion and misinformation about the strict new U.S. immigration law have kept many of the workers at home and begun to change the dimension of agriculture in the West. The law gives amnesty to immigrants who have been in the United States since 1981 and to certain agricultural workers but imposes sanctions against employers who hire workers who do not qualify.

After a decade of alien labor surplus, farmers are bidding against each other for workers. Wages are increasing, and pressure mounts to assure an adequate labor pool for the critical days of late summer when orchard owners will begin to bring in the state's 3 billion-pound apple crop.

"In the long term, the new law means an end to the labor surplus that farmers have been able to exploit," said George Finch of the United Farm Workers of Washington at Granger. "More than half of the alien workers live here, but 70 percent of all of them are undocumented. They were at the growers' mercy. The farmers now are trying to manufacture a crisis to change or circumvent the law . . . . Some farmers have a genuine fear, but in the long run they will have enough workers, and you'll see more supply and demand. Growers already are having to pay more."

Here, as in the big growing areas of California and Oregon, the search is on for help, and farmers' stomachs churn. Orchards around here and at Yakima, to the south, exhibit signs asking for cherry pickers and apple and pear thinners, all hand work requiring skill. The Wenatchee World newspaper is running free help-wanted and work-wanted ads for the orchard industry.

A combination of weather that speeded early fruit crops and the absence of immigrant workers caused some losses in strawberries and cherries. But the crisis air that gripped the region in early June and sent legislators in Washington, D.C., scrambling to speed up worker registration has largely subsided.

"The labor situation has improved since early June," said Doug McDougall, production manager for the Columbia fruit packing firm in Wenatchee. "We left 10 tons of cherries on our trees because of insufficient labor. Several other growers left fruit to rot on the trees."

"But we are very scared even though we seem to have adequate help now for the cherries," McDougall said last week. "We'll need 40,000 to 50,000 pickers for the apple harvest, and we could fall short by half . . . . Since 1969, I've never seen it like this."

Adolfo Capistani of the state Department of Employment Security at Olympia said last week that it was too early to tell how the apple harvest labor situation would shape up. But for now, he said, "We're out of the crisis stage . . . . There is no way of disproving or proving that the growers overstated their labor needs. But the story of rotting fruit has been overstated. Losses are not that significant. There was a need, and it got fulfilled, although it was at the expense of the apple and pear thinning that needed to go on."

Dave Parsons, a gritty man who grew up in the orchard business, has been caught by the labor shortage. But like other growers in the area, he has found a way to cope.

"I could use another six apple thinners," he said. "I'm working with only 60 percent of my usual crew, so that means it will take us two to three weeks longer to do the job. Other growers have only 10 percent of what they need, so there's no use to me jumping wages -- it would only hurt them."

As Parsons talked at the edge of his 60-acre grove, incongruous laughter and Spanish chitchat flowed from among the trees. Parsons' year-round crew of illegal workers -- three Vasquez brothers, a wife and an uncle, all from the same Oaxacan town of Huajuapan de Leon -- were pushing ahead with apple thinning.

Parsons' crew has returned to him year after year, and under the new law, they will qualify for permanent residency because they have been seasonal agriculture workers here in the past. With the stigma of illegality gone, Parsons and his crew talked freely about past ways and the future.

"I was counting on other Vasquez relatives to come" this year, Parsons said, "but they're afraid. Afraid the Immigration and Naturalization Service will nail them for something and then afraid the Internal Revenue Service will nail them for back taxes."

Martin Vasquez, a short, heavily muscled man of 28 wearing a local country-club golf tournament cap, came down from the orchard to add to the story. He is Parsons' foreman, an employe here for 11 years, who shares warm feelings with the orchard owner.

"My relatives wanted to come, but they knew that because of the law it would be hard to find a job," Vasquez said. "Many were here last year but did not return. They feared they would not qualify . . . . There is no employment at home. They say life is very tough, the economy is bad."

The Vasquez story is typical. His father, who did not return this year, showed up here in 1974 and went to work for Parsons. Other relatives, including Martin, followed in 1976, and with them came others from the same area of Oaxaca.

Martin's brothers, Benito and Rigoberto, and their uncle Juan Vasquez joined the Parsons work crew. Martin was caught three times trying to slip into the United States. Other times, he paid an escort, known as a "coyote," as much as $700 to sneak him over the border. Once, part of the clan paid a taxi driver $1,200 to bring them here from Los Angeles.

In 1983, the last time Martin Vasquez went home, he married and returned with his wife -- illegally -- to the Parsons farm. A child was born here, and another is due in October. The Vasquezes live in attractive housing provided free by Parsons, and they have become his full-time assistants.

"I came chasing the dollars, I guess," Vasquez said. "I was illegal, but no, I was never frightened. I knew the authorities had been discussing a new law for a long time, and I said it would work out sometime. I really feel very happy the law has passed. I had to pay every time I came across the border. I plan now to go home to visit . . . . I would like to make some money and start some business in Mexico, but that will be quite a few years. I want my child to go to school here so he does not have the same problems I have -- poor, no career."

The Vasquez family connection with Parsons has made a difference in their lives. They have purchased four cars, many appliances and clothes; they paid for running water for their house in Mexico; they bought 20 lots in Huajuapan de Leon and are building a new residence.

"They are hungry; excellent workers," Parsons said. "The help was here locally in the past, but they won't come out now when they can get welfare payments. I pay by the hour as well as by the tree that is thinned or picked as an incentive.

"How good are they? Well, two former employes came out and wanted to pick. They lasted two days; one got two bins of apples, the other got four. Martin's brothers were picking eight bins apiece at the same time. That's hungry."

Parsons said his only complaint was that the brothers want to work too long.

Martin Vasquez smiled, then put the complaint in context. "It is a short season, so you give all you've got. We work 10 to 12 hours a day in the harvest if Mr. Parsons will let us," he said. "We are working 11 hours now because we need more thinners, and the help is not here."

Down the road at Tom McDevitt's pear, apple and cherry operation the scene was similar. McDevitt's crew, with some workers from the same part of Oaxaca, was preparing to drop thinning chores and move over to harvesting four acres of late cherries last week.

"These workers have come off and on for seven years. The ones from Oaxaca always return; they just show up, usually don't even telephone. A van pulls up, and there they are," McDevitt said. "They are real workers, and I admire them for it. You know, we've been spoiled by them -- some can pick 10 bins {250 boxes} a day . . . . We have problems with the law, but overall it will help them. They can go home and see their families freely; they can look to other things."

McDevitt complained about red tape and paper-work confusion in his efforts to help former workers still in Mexico qualify to apply for legal status in the United States under the seasonal agricultural workers (SAW) program. "I have filled out three forms for the same people," he said. "It's just total confusion . . . . One problem is that we don't know exactly what documents to send them. We're just a little shot in the bucket, but we'll be out of business if there are no provisions in the law to provide for new workers each year."

Dario Ybarra, an attorney and immigration specialist with the U.S. Catholic Conference at Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley, conceded that confusion has reigned in the new legalization program, but he said the blame is ill-placed.

"All the attacks have been on the INS and the employers," he said, "but they are generated by do-gooder organizations that are looking out for their own vested interests. They get money for each case they handle. They have politicized the legalization process and created a boogeyman concept toward the INS. I'm just fed up with these do-gooders who claim to champion the indigent, the oppressed and downtrodden."

Ybarra said that more than 132,000 undocumented aliens in the Yakima diocese -- most of them Mexican farmhands -- are eligible for amnesty or SAW status under the new law. And, he said, contrary to many farmers' fears, the law provides for a replacement pool of farm workers in the future under the replenishment agricultural worker (RAW) program.

"For this thing to work, we must be able to also give an amnesty to employers who have hired undocumented labor in the past and violated federal and state tax and Social Security laws. We are finding some aliens can't get documentation because the employers are afraid. We're trying to get employers to understand they have a vested interest in making this system work," he said.

In some precincts, that realization already has hit home. One such place is the Roy Farms outside of Yakima, where four Roy brothers and their father oversee vast plantings of apples, cherries and hops and rely heavily on a Mexican work force that includes second and third generation laborers.

"Could we make it without illegal workers?" Leslie Roy asked rhetorically. "I'm not sure. Farmers before us made it, without the illegals, so I suppose we would find a way. It probably means more cost and more mechanization if the work force is cut back."

His brother Mark Roy added another slant. "People are predicting that wages will have to go up 25 to 75 percent over the next few years. You will see more efforts to motivate workers as a result, and that's the way we are moving . . . . We are doing little things to show them it's not just our ranch, but that it's theirs, too. Our success depends on them."

Here at Peshastin, retired orchard man Carl Bergren, selling his son's lush cherries at a roadside stand, put it in a different framework.

"In the past," he said, "we depended on winos, and on local people and retirees who would come out to pick. Now all we have are the Mexican workers . . . . They are outstanding, they really are, but the costs are going to go up. The American people are not educated to pay the real price of their food. It is going to have to be learned."