By Kevin Bouffard
LAKELAND | Florida citrus growers don''t like it because of the red tape. Immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America object that it offers them no pathway to U.S. citizenship.
And Florida residents object to housing large numbers of immigrant laborers in local apartment complexes, labor camps and other multiple-unit housing facilities.
Still the U.S. Department of Labor''s "guest worker" program for agriculture, known commonly by the initials H-2A, looks to represent the future.
H-2A provides a legal way for agricultural employers to bring in immigrant labor for part of the year. Most growers use it for harvesting labor.
But the burdens it places on agricultural employers are considerable.
Employers must prove they need to import foreign workers by documenting the efforts made to hire U.S. workers.
Employers must recruit workers in the workers'' home countries, usually Mexico and Central America, and submit them to an elaborate Department of Homeland Security screening at the U.S. Embassy in that country.
Employers must provide transportation for the cleared employees to the U.S. and back.
"We''ll have $1,500 per worker invested before they even pick an orange," said Marty McKenna, a Lake Wales-based grower who manages more than 5,000 acres.
Still, H-2A appears to be the only way to provide sufficient harvesting workers for citrus and other Florida crops because the current system of immigration enforcement is falling apart.
"The current system is broken," said Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C., a labor advocacy group.
"The majority of farmworkers are undocumented. Employers are having trouble finding workers because of the anti-immigration problem," Goldstein said.
Goldstein estimated that U.S. agriculture companies have 2.5 million foreign workers, about 60 percent of whom are illegal.
Most estimate the total illegal immigrant population at about 12 million.
Local citrus growers who have recently begun usingH-2A agreed that, despite the burden of red tape, the program is the only viable alternative for recruiting a stable labor force.
The vast majority of H-2A recruits hold down harvesting jobs.
"Our thinking was, regardless of what the federal government does about immigration reform, we wanted to be sure we had a reliable work force. H-2A is the only way we knew to do that," McKenna said.
Even some of the workers who apparently benefit from the H-2A don''t favor it, said Maria Jimenez, a volunteer at Centro Campesino, an immigrant advocacy group at St. Ann''s Catholic Church in Haines City, and the daughter of legal migrant farm workers.
"I think they still feel exploited for cheap labor," she said. "There''s no path to citizenship in H-2A. If this were available to people already here, it would be attractive."
PROGRAM BEGAN WITH SUGAR FARMERS
Begun in 1943 at the request of Florida sugar farmers, the federal guest-worker program has risen in popularity in the past few years as illegal immigration has moved to the forefront of the national political debate.
In 2004, according to the Labor Department''s Web site, 6,691 farm employers recruited 44,619 H-2A workers.
Participation fell slightly to 6,550 employers in 2006, but the number of certified H-2A workers rose 32 percent to 59,112 people.
The current H-2A law has no limits on the number of guest agricultural workers that U.S. farmers can bring in.
Few Florida growers have used the program, however. In 2006, the department''s statistics show, just 47 of the state''s growers employed 1,880 H-2A workers. No state breakdown is available for 2004.
With the growing federal crackdown on illegal immigration, growers said those H-2A numbers will grow in the near future.
"I think it''s the future of any industry in the United States that needs a significant amount of hand labor,"McKenna said.
This is the first season McKenna has used H-2A. He brought in 150 workers from Mexico in late December.
HOUSING EXPENSES ARE A MAJOR PROBLEM
The biggest expense to using H-2A is the requirement to provide each guest worker with housing that meets program standards, including minimum requirements of square feet per worker, ceiling height, window areas, and toilet and bathing facilities, said Bo Bentley, the president of Overlook Harvesting Co., a subsidiary of the family firm Bentley Brothers Inc.
"That''s a huge task in itself," said Bentley, who is usingH-2A for the second season.
Overlook Harvesting works on about 12,000 acres in Florida, including 4,000 acres in Polk.
The company picks about 5 million boxes of citrus annually. It used about 100 H-2A workers in the 2006-07 season and 335 guest workers this season.
Growers must demonstrate they can provide housing at the beginning of the application process.
The difficulty became clear when Bentley Brothers sought to build an $800,000 dormitory facility for up to 132 H-2A workers on Lake Buffum east of Fort Meade.
Bentley said he thought the labor camp was a long-term housing solution.
Both he and McKenna currently use rental housing.
"Renting is expensive. Many times I''m required to go in and make additional improvements to make sure it passes inspection," Bentley said.
The Lake Buffum camp aroused a storm of opposition from local residents, who complained the camp was not "compatible" with their rural, residential area. The Polk County Planning Commission on Sept. 11 rejected Bentley''s application, and the county commission unanimously upheld that decision Jan. 9.
Commissioner Jean Reed and local agricultural officials, including members of the Polk County Farm Bureau, have said they are working on changes in county ordinances that would allow for guest worker housing facilities.
''AGJOBS'' DESIGNED TO REFORM PROGRAM
Agricultural interests in Florida and the United States also are working with Congress to reform the H-2A program to eliminate the red tape.
A coalition of grower groups - including Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the state''s largest growers'' representative, and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Maitland - and labor groups including Farmworker Justice and the United Farm Workers, the national labor union, have united behind a common reform proposal called "AgJobs."
AgJobs represents a compromise from each side on how to reform H-2A.
For employers, AgJobs includes a proposal that would allow them to give workers a housing allowance in some circumstances instead of actual accommodations.
It also would freeze the so-called "adverse effect wage rate" - effectively the prevailing wage paid to H-2A workers - for three years while the Labor Department conducts an independent study to reform the way it sets that rate.
The wage rate is the department''s estimate of what the free-market wage would be without guest workers, and labor advocates have long complained it is too low. The current rate in Florida is $8.56 an hour. That compares to the state''s current minimum wage of $6.79.
Some immigrant advocates have problems with those proposals.
"Right now, they (immigrant workers) are suspicious of the provisions for housing and wages," Jimenez, of Centro Campesino, said.
Labor groups won some concessions in the AgJobs proposal, such as a limited right to sue in federal court to enforce wages and working conditions, a right they don''t currently have.
The most controversial aspect of AgJobs is giving guest workers a passage to permanent U.S. residency. Under AgJobs, they could earn the coveted green card after working in the U.S. for at least three to five years, depending upon the number of days worked each year.
Farmworker Justice supports AgJobs because a fair guest-worker program combined with stronger border control would mean immigrant farm laborers would no longer live under the fear of deportation, giving them the ability to challenge employers for violations of wage and working conditions.
"The bottom line is, there''s already a lot of minimum-wage and labor-protection laws not being enforced," Goldstein said.
"AgJobs would provide agricultural employers with a stable, legal workforce, and it helps ensure farm workers can improve wages and working conditions."