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Spanish Immigration Ploy: Hire Mothers

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Farmers in Spain need a cheap pool of labor to help pick its produce. But they're also concerned that migrant workers may decide to stay in the country illegally. One town's answer: hire mothers who will want to return to their children.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As we begin this week in which the U.S. Senate my debate immigration, let's examine what's happening in another country - Spain. There is a long tradition of using migrant workers to pick produce on farms in Spain. As in the United States, there are concerns that that practice can lead to illegal immigration. But one Spanish town has devised a plan to make sure the workers go back home after the harvest. Only mothers need apply.

Here's Jerome Socolovsky.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: A Moroccan woman with a baseball cap and a veil is bent over a long row of strawberry plants. Hayzee Naza(ph) delicately snaps the precious fruits that will end up in grocery stores across Europe. It's hard work, but for this mother of nine the job she got from Spanish farmer Antonio Luis Martin Gonzales(ph) is just great.

Ms. HAYZEE NAZA: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Oh, this man is a good man and he's doing a good thing, she says. God willing, I'll work here for a while and then go back home. Here in Spain, Hayzee Naza makes 10 times what she would earn on farms on Morocco. She works eight hours a day, not dawn to dusk as she did there. She doesn't have to pay for room and board. And she gets free classes in Spanish and other subjects, such as family planning and preventing domestic violence.

The farmers are also delighted. Gonzales was one of the pioneers of the program to hire only Moroccan mothers. He recently got a call from another farmer whose wife manages the women in their field.

Mr. ANTONIO LUIS MARTIN GONZALES: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Gonzales says the other farmer's wife was so happy with the Moroccan women that next year she'll get all her workers from Morocco.

(Soundbite of rain)

SOCOLOVSKY: A sudden rain shower beats down on the plastic sheeting that covers the 60 acres of strawberry plants on the Gonzales farm. Here in Cartaya, around 32,000 migrant workers are needed every year to work in the strawberry fields. Until now, most of the migrant labor has been from Eastern Europe. But when the farm jobs disappear after the harvest, many of those workers stay on illegally and crime and anti-immigrant feelings have been a problem.

The idea behind hiring the Moroccan mothers is that they'll want to return to their children. The program's sponsors say there's another benefit: The money the mothers earn is more likely to be spent back in their poor villages in Morocco.

Ms. SAMIDA MAMRI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Another fruit picker, Samida Mamri, says she worked in a salad factory in Morocco, earning $7 a day. Here she gets almost $50 a day. After work, this mother of four attends the classes and cooks. As she speaks, two young Romanian employees are leaving on their break for a smoke.

Gonzales says many of the Eastern European women aspire to be like their Western European counterparts and are not always hard workers. The Moroccans, on the other hand, have their own culture.

Mr. GONZALES: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They don't drink. They don't smoke. They don't go to the disco. Okay, so it's marvelous for me that they're Muslim, but I don't impose their culture on them. I just sort of taking advantage of it, he says.

The only people who don't seem to be thrilled with the Moroccan mother's program are the local young men. Every spring, up until now, they have eagerly awaited the arrival of las rubias, the blondes from Poland and Romania who spice up the local nightlife.

Hayzee Naza(ph), the Moroccan mother of nine, doesn't go to the disco. Her leathery skin and few remaining crooked teeth make her look several decades older than her 44 years, but she has a youthful charm. And like the other Moroccan women on this farm, she knows a good strawberry when she sees one.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Cartaya, Spain.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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