Juan Carlos, 24, swiftly cut and gathered stalk after stalk of asparagus in a remote part of the San Joaquin Delta. He felt safe enough to admit that he is as fresh to California as the produce he harvests.
He only crossed the border from Mexico this year.
"Sure, I'd like to have a permit to come legally. That way there wouldn't be a need to walk through the desert and maybe die," he said in Spanish. "We could go home to our families after the work is done."
Carlos is referring to a permit under the guest worker program known as H-2A. Less than 1 percent of California's farmworkers are on H-2A visas. At peak season, up to 70 percent of the nearly half-million workers in the fields are undocumented.
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The Bush administration, however, has promised to get tougher on illegal immigration and is trying to cajole American agribusiness to use the H-2A program instead of hiring undocumented workers. To that end, the administration in February proposed H-2A changes it ideally wants finalized by the end of summer.
The U.S. Labor Department, the agency that reviews H-2A petitions, says it aims to "modernize" the program, making it easier for employers while protecting better the rights of guest workers and U.S.-based laborers.
Labor unions and California farmers object, though, saying many changes would make the program worse.
"It's a Band-Aid on a laceration that's going to require a thousand stitches," said Manuel Cunha, a fruit farmer in Fresno.
They include: a new way to calculate wages for H-2A workers; increasing the fee of each worker visa from $10 to $100; and, under threat of higher penalties for lying, allowing businesses to "attest" they performed all obligatory steps to try to hire U.S. workers. Currently, they must file hard evidence of their attempts.
Other substantial changes are increasing advertising to recruit U.S. laborers, and lengthening the H-2A application deadline to no later than 75 days before workers would be needed instead of the current 45 days.
Another major change would allow employers to give H-2A workers housing vouchers to rent their own quarters instead of providing housing – unless a governor proves a housing shortage exists in a state.
If California farmers were to switch to the H-2A program, the results would be profound for the state, which produces half of all U.S.-grown fresh fruits and vegetables and 20 percent of milk.
Labor advocates fear the wage change would depress wages for all farmworkers. Farm groups fear it could increase wages.
Farmers have long wanted the housing obligation dropped, but some acknowledge that California doesn't have enough rental space now to accommodate the workers who would be needed.
Cunha said he plans to use the H-2A program, but he said requiring growers to anticipate a need for workers 75 days before the date is unrealistic. He called the proposed $100 fee for each visa "so outlandish no one will want to use this."
More California growers have started using the H-2A program in recent years, but in 2006, only 2,292 of 59,112 H-2A workers nationwide were in California. California growers specialize in perishable crops and say the program is too slow to guarantee workers' timely arrival.
'Tighten the screws'
In February, when officials unveiled proposed reforms to the program, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff expressed sympathy for employers because Congress had not passed earlier immigration changes that would have allowed some farmworkers to earn legal status. But he warned businesses that he intends to "continue to tighten the screws" on illegal immigration.
U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said "unless changes are made to more accurately reflect today's economy, the labor challenges confronting U.S. agriculture would just continue to get worse."
United Farm Workers Union President Arturo Rodriguez said he doubts the changes would improve conditions. "I don't get it. The growers don't like it either," he said. "If there are that many people who think it's wrong, why go ahead with this?"
Especially troubling for California is the suggestion to allow H-2A housing vouchers, he said. "We'd flood these communities with all these workers who would have no housing."
H-2A workers work up to 10 months and must return home for at least six months after three years in the same seasonal job. They earn no credit toward permanent status. The administration wants to shorten the obligatory time home to three months, but would not extend workers rights toward a green card.
Bruce Goldstein, director of Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., said he's worried proposed changes will slash wages and benefits for guest workers, making them far cheaper than available U.S. workers.
His group and the UFW are not entirely opposed to guest workers, but are already clashing with growers over the program: In March, the UFW filed a complaint with federal officials, claiming that a California grower violated H-2A rules by contracting guest workers instead of rehiring seasonal U.S. workers.
Farmers want changes
California farmers and labor advocates, in spite of differences, share common ground on immigration reform. They want legal residency for workers now here.
"We want our borders secure, too," said Jasper Hempel, vice president of the Irvine-based Western Growers Association. "But farmworkers aren't terrorists. There has to be some sanity brought back to this."
Even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks drew attention to U.S. border security, a coalition of growers and labor activists was lobbying Congress to pass a bill called AgJOBS. It would offer permanent status to up to 1.5 million farmworkers if they continued to work on farms at least three to five years after signing up.
The proposal is still pending in Congress. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., an AgJOBS supporter, has suggested an emergency proposal to give some farmworkers provisional legal status without the permanent status later.
Hempel said legalizing workers now here would give the industry time to build H-2A housing, without losing employees and crippling food production. "It gives us a transition," he said.
Unions say AgJOBS would empower workers to demand better wages and benefits and create better conditions for all laborers, including H-2A workers.
Goldstein predicted that growers may soon get a better sense of how serious Chertoff is about cracking down on agribusiness over hiring undocumented workers. Farms have already been investigated in New York and other states, he said.
"I do think they're serious."