It was a novel experiment in California agriculture, this controversial plan by Ventura County labor contractor Ralph De Leon to import Mexican laborers to pick lemons near Somis.
Tapping a federal program, the veteran Santa Paula labor broker employed 38 guest workers for two months earlier this year, picking them up at the border and putting them to work in the county's citrus heartland.
He provided housing, three meals a day and transportation to and from the lemon groves. And when their contract was up on April 19, he put them on a bus and sent them back to Mexico.
De Leon said he lost $3,000 in the deal, believed to be the first large-scale use of the guest worker program in California agriculture. But he said he would do it again.
"I'm trying to provide an option to those workers who are risking their lives crossing the border and who come here only to live in deplorable conditions," said De Leon, adding that he was forced to recruit foreign help after he was unable to find enough domestic pickers--at least enough here legally--for the citrus harvest.
"It's an underground economy that everybody is ignoring," he said. "There are so many pluses [with the guest worker program], I just can't understand why anyone would oppose it."
Opponents are lining up to do just that.
While growers support the need for an expanded and more efficient guest worker program, farm worker advocates say the system is unnecessary and ripe for abuse.
The program, established under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, allows agricultural producers to temporarily tap foreign workers when domestic laborers are unavailable.
California growers say that is increasingly the case, as legal immigrants leave the fields for more stable jobs and the statewide farm labor force--500,000 workers at peak season--swells with illegal immigrants.
By some estimates, at least half and as much as 70% of the state's farm labor force is undocumented. Rather than criminalizing a system of migratory labor vital to the farm economy, growers say it should be brought into the open and regulated to eliminate abuse and minimize the risks migrants take to get here.
Critics Say There's Plenty of Local Labor
Critics of the program say such arguments are a smokescreen for efforts to supply agriculture with a steady and disposable low-wage work force.
With double-digit unemployment in the Central Valley and other farming enclaves, labor advocates and others argue that there are more than enough domestic pickers to work the fields.
Moreover, they say the surest way for agricultural employers to maintain the work force they need is to raise wages. And if the concern is that too many farm workers are undocumented, they suggest the answer is to legalize the immigrant work force already living in this country.
"If growers are truthful, they will admit that there are plenty of people here to do the work if you include the undocumented," said Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers union.
"If there is genuine legalization, then the guest worker program becomes irrelevant," he added. "Until then, we will do everything possible to continue to fight for California farm workers who deserve the opportunity to work."
About 45,000 foreign farm workers are admitted to the United States each year through the federal guest worker program. Most are in the Southeast, in the sugar cane fields in Florida and tobacco farms in North Carolina.
Neither federal nor state labor officials could say how many agricultural guest workers come to California each year. But officials believe it is no more than a few hundred, with most brought in to tend livestock on sheep ranches.
Jack King, manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau, said growers statewide have been watching De Leon's efforts as they grapple with their own labor shortages.
In fact, De Leon is due to talk about his experiences with the program during a farm bureau meeting on labor issues in June.
One thing is certain: People on both sides of the issue believe De Leon's trial run could be the start of widespread use of the program in California.
"There is no question, especially with [post-Sept. 11] talk of strengthening border security, that there is growing concern that on any given day there could be a labor shortage," said King, adding that the farm bureau backs efforts underway to modify the program to make it more workable for California growers.
"We need some type of legalized process," he said, "whether it's legalization of those who are here or a [more efficient] legalized system to bring workers into California."
Half-Crews Used for Recent Harvests
King and others say the labor shortage is critical. In Ventura County, agriculture officials say it has become so bad in recent years that many growers have been forced to go with half-crews during citrus and avocado harvests.