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The State's Growing Need

Immigration reform efforts have renewed support for a simplified guest worker program.

September 18, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

OCEANSIDE — Gilberto Valiente Romero cringes at the memory of his 2003 journey. The long trip to the Arizona border from his village in the Mexican state of Puebla. The hike across miles of desert. Then the bruising finale, as he was captured on the U.S. side and sent back.

But since 2004, the father of three has made the seasonal trek without fear of arrest, under the auspices of Oceanside vine-ripe tomato giant Harry Singh & Sons. Each year in June, Valiente travels at company expense to the northern Mexican city of Hermosillo and is put up at a hotel to await a guest worker visa.

He then boards an air-conditioned charter bus, complete with movie entertainment, for the trip to Singh & Sons, near Camp Pendleton. For six months, he works the fields for a government-set wage, $9 an hour this year. Housing is free and his three subsidized daily meals cost $8.78. Come December, a bus takes him home.

"If I could stay I would," the 38-year-old Valiente said while lounging recently in the dormitory courtyard. "But it's better this way. It's good to be legal."

As border enforcement shrinks the labor force of undocumented field hands and immigration reform looms in Congress, growers have focused with renewed vigor on the need for a simplified federal guest worker program.

For Harry Singh & Sons, which imported nearly half the agricultural visa holders in California last year, the federal program became a necessity in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. With half its fields on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, the company suddenly came under scrutiny by immigration officials. In a mid-harvest panic, having lost three-quarters of its workers, the company turned to the federal government.

Singh & Sons' experience since then offers a close look at a program that growers and worker advocates alike agree is deeply flawed, yet crucial to comprehensive immigration reform.

The farm's general manager is Luawanna Hallstrom, whose Punjabi immigrant grandfather, Harry Singh, founded the company in 1940. Saying the guest worker program has driven her operation into the red, she estimates that her current annual costs are 28% higher than they would be without it. But the promise of reform keeps her going.

"I had always said 'I will never use the program until it's reformed,' " Hallstrom said. "But the only way we can farm now is because of it."

Still, it was a rocky start for Singh & Sons in the fall of 2001.

Growers must generally ask the U.S. Department of Labor to certify the existence of a labor shortage 90 days before foreign workers are needed. But the harvest was in full swing, so Hallstrom filed an emergency request.

Fortunate to have on-site housing, as required for the program, the company hastily recruited workers in Mexico. If all had gone well, those workers would have been vetted and approved by the State Department and then bused to Oceanside.

But the Department of Labor kicked the application back for revisions, and by mid-December, Hallstrom said, $2.5 million in tomatoes had rotted in the fields.

"We were stumbling through it," she said of the program. "Honestly, it takes a few years to get the hang of it."

Singh's second year in the program brought new difficulties. The law aims to protect U.S. workers by requiring that growers advertise the jobs widely and hire any qualified locals who respond, at the same pay and benefits as their foreign counterparts. But requirements that give domestic workers priority often collide with importing foreign ones.

Singh's application proceeded more smoothly in 2002. But in a pinch while waiting for the laborers to arrive, the company found workers in the Coachella Valley and bused them to the fields daily, paying $6.75 an hour rather than that year's required $8.02 an hour and free housing the foreign workers would receive, a lawsuit later alleged. Then, five days before the visa holders arrived, the busing stopped.

The company violated the law, a judge later ruled in a related injunction, by not offering the Coachella Valley farm hands the same deal as their imported colleagues. Singh & Sons settled out of court.

Although Hallstrom declined to discuss that and other lawsuits in more detail, she said the program's complexities have caused her to retain both immigration and labor lawyers. "We learned, and hopefully everyone else will learn from us," she said.

Still, she said, bureaucratic snafus have persisted. In 2004, the Department of Labor challenged Singh's ability to require that their workers not be color blind, something the company says is essential because the tomato crop is picked in seven shades from green to red. Although Singh eventually prevailed, the dispute resulted in a 45-day delay, which Hallstrom says caused crop damage.

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