The Politics Of The Guest-Worker Program

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agreed on a plan for a new system to import temporary workers. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving discusses the politics of the business-labor immigration deal. Rusty Barr, owner of Barr Evergreens, shares how he uses the guest-worker program.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The last time politicians made a serious attempt to reform U.S. immigration laws in 2007, the effort foundered in part on inability to reach agreement on guest-workers. Now, after sometimes tense negotiations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have come to an agreement they could be a big part of a new immigration bill in the Senate. The program brings low-skilled workers to the United States on temporary H-2 visas. We want to hear today from guest-workers and from those who hire them how the current system works out. Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We begin here in studio 3A with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Always nice to have you on the program, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And how big a deal is this agreement between the AFL and the Chamber?

ELVING: It could be a crucial moment in getting a comprehensive immigration overhaul before the Senate. That doesn't get it passed, it doesn't right the final bill and it doesn't deal with the enormous obstacle of the House of Representatives. But about a week ago or a little while before that, it was not even clear that we were going to get a comprehensive bill agreed upon by this sponsoring group, we call them the Gang of 8, group of 8, four Republicans, four Democrats, including, crucially, the two Republican Senators from Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake, who have been negotiating with the group of Democrats and coming up with a peace of legislation that appears right now is going to make it to the point of being introducible to the Senate, and then the regular process of the Senate can begin.

But this was crucial because the president said I really want this bill to come from the Senate. I really want these senators to put something together that's pre-negotiated between the parties and has bipartisan support...

CONAN: And gets talked about in April.

ELVING: Yes. And well, they had hoped to have something by the end of March, but I think we'd all be willing to settle for the first week that Congress is back in April, which is the week after this one.

CONAN: And that is because of the legislative calendar and the idea that if you're going to get a major piece of legislation through, better get it through before the summer recess because by the time they convene next fall, we're already talking about the next election.

ELVING: That's right. The sooner the better, and also there are all these distractions out there and they're going to get worse. There's the gun debate and there's also the always ongoing fiscal struggle between the president and the Congress and between the parties. And so distraction could kill this bill unless it takes its window and its window is coming up.

And now it looks, because of this deal reached by leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, that there is an agreement for what we used to call guest-workers. I think we'll probably need a somewhat different term for them now because the terms are changing by which they would be in this country and guest is probably not the best word for it anymore because there's going to be an opportunity for them to stay and apply for citizenship, even change jobs. So they are not necessarily strictly guests anymore but that's what we have called temporary, if you will, workers who come in on temporary visas.

CONAN: And these are the so-called H-2 visas, as they're known. And what would be different under this program than what we have now and what we've done before? We remember the Bracero program all those years ago.

ELVING: Well, that way back to the World War II era, I believe, or thereabouts. This would be different in the sense that we would be setting a number of visas and it's going to be somewhere between 20,000 and 200,000 a year, depending on the labor market. And there would be certain determinations made about how they would be paid, and they would not be a wage-depressing element, and that's what the AFL-CIO is worried about, that people would be brought in strictly to lower wages, and they would be people who would be available for a variety of kinds of jobs. It wouldn't strictly be agricultural but we've been talking about the construction industry and not just tourism which is another seasonal kind of occupation, but also jobs in manufacturing and a variety of other jobs.

And this has always been a sticking point between labor and business, where business obviously wants to have a bountiful supply of labor at any time to do any kind of job at the wage that business wants to pay, and that obviously is not always possible, especially if you're trying to hire people who aren't a born Americans and who expect a certain wage. So business wants to be able to have a certain amount of flexibility here, and they really want to have as many as possible.

They use to talk about 400,000 visas a year. And now we're talking about something between 20 and 200,000 with the formula that determines how many in any given year depending on how the economy is doing.

CONAN: Now we hear that many Republicans are reconsidering their position on this and other aspects of immigration reform after, well, last year's election when this played a big part in the whopping majority that President Obama and the Democrats enjoyed at the polls. Is that same kind of pressure being felt at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

ELVING: I believe that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also capable of reading a public opinion poll. They know that the iron is hot. They know this is the time to go forward. They know this is the time to get a lot of the things they would like to get. And a great deal of the immigration impetus, if you will, the inspiration for why so many people come to this country, of course, is the open arms with which they're greeted by a lot of American industries that are looking for people, including people in low-skilled occupations, who are willing to work and willing to take on difficult conditions - one of the reasons that you see quite so many immigrant workers on construction sites and so on.

And they're very eager to have them and they see this as an opportunity for their conditions to be good for them and good for business and they're eager to strike while the iron is hot.

CONAN: And one of the concessions, perhaps, by the chamber was the idea that some of these - these would not all be at the minimum or lowest wage. Some of them would be at higher wages which, of course, the AF of L wanted because then, well, U.S. workers can compete.

ELVING: That's right. Well, the idea is that they should be paid, now either the prevailing wage for that job in that area, or a higher wage as offered by the employer, if the employer who wants to pay them more.

CONAN: So they're not undercut.

ELVING: That's correct. If the employer wants to pay them more to attract them to a particular employer, that's fine. But they can't pay less than the prevailing wage for that particular kind of work in that particular area.

CONAN: Well, we want to talk with people who hire guest workers now, as they're known, and people who've worked in those jobs: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Joining us by phone from his office in Crumpler, North Carolina is Rusty Barr, the owner of Barr Evergreens, which participates in guest worker program. Good to have you with us today.

RUSTY BARR: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand you've been hiring guest workers for 15 years. How has it worked out?

BARR: It's been a successful venture for us here in western North Carolina. I'm a Christmas tree nursery man here, and we're kind of in an area where there's a lot of retirees and not a lot of, you know, seasonal people to take our seasonal farm jobs.

CONAN: And what kind of workers are you hiring? What kind jobs do they do?

BARR: Basically, we're hiring workers for Christmas tree and nursery operation. They do things like pruning the trees, planting the trees. We also harvest the balled and burlapped evergreens for nurseries and re-wholesale yards across the Southeast and the Midwest.

CONAN: And I've - people might think, well, you know, that's very pleasant work. What a wonderful smell. I've been in Christmas tree farms in the summertime. Boy, it can be a little overwhelming.

BARR: Yes, it can. I mean, the work is hard. The hours are usually long, especially during the peak shipping seasons. You know, we basically - now we're operating six days a week, sometimes seven, just out of necessity. But during the Christmas season, we usually work seven days a week starting about the first of November until about the tenth to fifteenth of December.

CONAN: And how does the program affect the hiring decisions you make.

BARR: Well, just, I mean, basically for us, you know, we bring in about 20 workers in mid February to the first of March to help us with the maintenance of our Christmas trees. After - in October, we bring in another - about 25 workers to help us harvest the Christmas trees. And it just - we usually have to decide when we want our workers, approximately 70 to, you know, 90 days in advance.

And the way our business is, we go to nursery trade shows in January and early February and make our sales. And we sometimes are hiring or requesting workers that we don't know, really, if we're going to have work for them.

CONAN: And where do you get them? Where do you sign up to get these workers?

BARR: Well, we participate with a group called the North Carolina Growers Association, and they facilitate the paperwork with Homeland Security in securing the workers in Mexico.

CONAN: So - and they're all - their paperwork is legit. You don't have any problems with that?

BARR: No. Yeah, they're - they come. They have a temporary visa that allows them to work in the United States for a period of about 10 months. They have an I-94 card which goes along. And they also have Social Security cards which, you know, helps them be identifiable.

CONAN: And how much do you pay them?

BARR: We pay $1,000 per worker.

CONAN: It's not an hourly rate?

BARR: We pay an hourly wage. It's - this year it's 9.68. And that's one of the disadvantages for us. I mean, it's not that the 9.68 is too much. It's just every year we don't know what the wage is going to be.

CONAN: So as - I don't know - have you been able to see the details? I'm not sure anybody has really seen the details. No legislative language yet, but what would your hopes be for this new package of immigration reform legislation and guest workers?

BARR: Well just, you know, more user-friendly process that, you know, can provide farmers and farm workers, you know, confidence that the program is going to work, consistently. You know, there's a lot of red tape involved, and fortunately, usually in the North Carolina Growers Association, they deal with a lot of that red tape, where if I was doing it myself, I don't think I could do it without a legal team.

CONAN: I suspect not. I can barely work out my taxes and I do get up from an accountant. But thank you very much for your time today, Mr. Barr, and good luck.

BARR: Thank you. Yeah. I hope - enjoyed listening to Ron, and I hope that we can get something done, because my workers really enjoyed this program, and they're happy to be coming here. And it's been official for them as well as...

CONAN: Rusty Barr, owner of Barr Evergreens in Crumpler, North Carolina joined us by phone from his office there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Alicia on the line. Alicia with us from Oakland. Hello, Alicia. Are you there? I think that Alicia is not with us any more. Let's go instead to Angel. Angel on the line with us from Fresno, California.

ANGEL: Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hello. Are you there?

ANGEL: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.

ANGEL: Yeah. I just wanted to say I wish this guest worker program would have been on the long time ago. And the reason I say that was because my father, when I was a young kid - I'm 30 years old now, but out here in California, my dad come out nine out nine months of the year to work, you know, grape and whatever other fruit was available at the time and then go back to (technical difficulties) for three months.

And, I mean, everybody that I know now they really don't want to stay in this - they're here because the money is here but their home, their (technical difficulties) is in Mexico. And what started happening was it came too expensive for my father to go back and forth because every time he had to go back he had to pay (technical difficulties) dollars to come back into the states illegally.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. To a coyote.

ANGEL: Right. And so instead what ended up happening is he ended up staying here instead. And also we were born and now, you know, I worked at a hospital. And so my - if there would have been a guest program my father would have kept coming back and forth. We would have been born Mexico, you know, probably what a lot of people, kind of, want, you know, from immigrants.

But we would have been in Mexico and my dad would have been providing for us, and the United States would have been receiving that worth at a lower, you know, paid than, say, an American would because, you know, honestly out in California, at least in the central valley, I don't see many other races performing the work that Mexican or Asian immigrants do.

CONAN: Is it on Angel or Angel?

ANGEL: Angel. Yeah.

CONAN: Angel. OK. Well, thank you very much for the call, and thanks for putting up with my mispronunciation.

ANGEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And it's interesting, Ron, as he described it, yes, their friction, if you will, for crossing the border back and forth illegally has gotten more difficult. We had four senators from the Gang of Eight down there last week checking out the idea of border security. That will be another major element of this immigration bill.

ELVING: That's right. And as they attempted to have a press conference at the end of their visit, the cameras could catch a woman actually scaling an 18-foot fence behind them and breaching the border by doing so. Now, she was quickly apprehended not long after that, but it did give rather a dramatic underlining to the degree to which people will go to great extremes to cross back and forth into the country. And even a fence, even an 18-foot fence in and out itself, is not really deterrent to everyone.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Michael. And Michael with us from Flagstaff, Arizona.

MICHAEL: Hi. Thanks for having me on the phone. I'm devastated that you're going to be off the air.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL: I worked in the restaurant industry and I know that it's going to affect the Arizona's industry big time. I'm sure prices are going to go up nationwide in terms of food prices, ultimately, because they're going to have to pay their workers a lot more. You know, they're going to be able to get the wages that they deserve. And also to kind of answer on Angel's statement. There actually was a guest program until 1987 I believe and then they canceled it, the program, and created this illegal immigration problem that we had today. But ultimately, yes, money is just going to be - have to be allocated more towards the guest workers or the guest immigrants that are going to get the wages that they finally deserved, ultimately.

CONAN: Well, that's an interesting point, Michael, and thanks very much for the kind words. And, Ron, let's not quibble, much of our crops are harvested by people who are here legally. Many restaurant workers, many other fields landscaping. There's a whole lot of people working here illegally. If those people have to be paid the going wage under a guest worker program, he's right, prices will go up.

ELVING: It's hard to see how they would not. These are the most difficult and least attractive jobs in the economy, by in large, whether it's washing dishes, whether it's harvesting crops outdoors and extreme temperatures, whether it's doing dangerous work with respect to construction or timbering or what have you. Many of these jobs are hard to fill and people who have gotten more education and gotten a little bit ahead in life, and whose parents have helped them move along in life, don't really want to go to those kinds of jobs. And so these industries have looked to where they could find people who would do the work and do it, from the business's stand point, economically.

CONAN: And when do we expect to see language - a bill that people can start picking apart and tearing to pieces?

ELVING: Very soon. I expect there to be some kind of language we can look at in the next week to 10 days, certainly two weeks. The window, as I said earlier, is not open forever. Their window is April, and they really need to get the bill moving, and I think they will but I think that in order to that, they're going to have that language in a kind of condition where we can at least look at it. This is not the final language by any means, but the proposal that would then go into the committee process have hearings, have a mark up and then go to the floor of the Senate.

CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor with us here in Studio 3A. Ron, thanks as always.

ELVING: Thank you.

CONAN: And when we come back tomorrow, we'll be talking about many other programs here at TALK OF THE NATION. I hope you'll join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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