California Employers Welcome Guest Workers

Controller John Demoss welcomes guest workers to Benchmark in San Diego. Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR. i i

Controller John Demoss welcomes newly-arrived guest workers to Benchmark Landscaping in San Diego. Scott Horsley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Horsley, NPR
Controller John Demoss welcomes guest workers to Benchmark in San Diego. Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR.

Controller John Demoss welcomes newly-arrived guest workers to Benchmark Landscaping in San Diego.

Scott Horsley, NPR

This week's boycott and political rallies around the country are turning up the heat on the immigration debate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he expects the Senate to consider a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy within the next two weeks. That could include a new "guest-worker" program.

Limited guest-worker programs already exist for immigrants doing seasonal work, and they're beginning to spread to the year-round occupations in California.

At seven o'clock in the morning, a few dozen men are lined up outside the immigration office at the San Diego-Tijuana border. They've just arrived here after an all-night bus ride from Hermosillo, Mexico. Martin Martinez is tired and hungry.

Inside his green Mexican passport, Martinez carries an orange card that shows he's eligible for an "H-2B," or guest-worker visa. That means he can stay in the U.S. for the better part of a year. But he carries hardly any luggage. Wearing only a T-shirt and stiff new blue jeans, Martinez shivers a bit in the early-morning chill.

Coastal San Diego is a good bit cooler than the Sonoran desert where Martinez lives, and where he was recruited to come north and work. All of the Mexican men in line here have friends or relatives who work for landscaping companies in Southern California. It was through those companies the men got their visas, after a costly and time-consuming process. Some applicants were turned away in Hermosillo after background checks by the U.S. consulate there. One man made it all the way to the border, only to be sent back when agents discovered he'd lied about never being in the United States before.

After waiting in line for a couple of hours to get his passport stamped, Martinez boards another bus that will carry him to the office of his future employer. Immigration consultant Patrick Jeannette, who helped arrange the visas, says despite these bureaucratic headaches, it's worth it.

"When these workers come in and they're documented, they're not looking over their shoulders, wondering if la migra is going to be busting them. So there's a lot more emphasis on their work than being on defense," Jeannette says.

Before going to the landscaping companies, Jeannette and the workers stop off to apply for Social Security numbers. They also get Spanish versions of the DMV manual, so they can start studying for a California driver's license.

Although landscaping work lasts year round in this area, the visas do not. The men can spend up to 10 months in the United States. Then they have to go home for a month or two, before applying for a visa renewal.

"They go home wearing brand new clothes," Jeannette says.

Many of the men have left wives and children behind, for the promise of better wages in the United States.

Ruiz Fernando Reyes Gascar says it's hard to make money in the corn fields of Michoacan, where he's from. Here in San Diego, he hopes to make enough to help support his family.

Every year, the U.S. government issues 66,000 H-2B visas. Jeannette says that barely puts a dent in the demand of U.S. employers. Like President Bush, Jeannette would like to see the guest-worker program expanded. But critics argue the government already lets too many foreigners into the country under these guest-worker programs.

"For a long time, many companies, not just in landscaping but in many other sectors of the economy, have been using guest workers rather than improving wages and working conditions in order to attract workers who are available and already in this country. Citizens and legal, permanent residents," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We shouldn't have government programs that are designed to keep wages in certain sectors of the labor market down."

The starting wage for the San Diego landscapers is between $7.50 and $8.50 an hour. Benchmark Landscaping offers roughly the same pay to U.S. residents. But it doesn't get many takers.

"Believe it or not, finding good workers even here in San Diego is hard," says Vice President Craig Mohns. "It's not just landscapers that are looking for the Hispanic workforce. It's every trade out there is looking for them. And then you go into restaurants and the Burger Kings and you name it. Everybody's looking for that worker. And it's getting harder and harder to find good, quality workers."

Benchmark pays $1,500 up front for each guest worker, to cover visa processing and transportation. Over time, the company will recover that money through deductions from the workers' wages.

The guest workers don't get company housing. Most stay with friends or relatives here. Employers are responsible for a bus ticket home for any worker who doesn't pan out.

Some years ago, Benchmark was caught using undocumented immigrants, and forced to lay off nearly a quarter of its 300 workers. Many of those went on to work for Benchmark's competitors. And the company doesn't want that to happen again.

"With this program, the nice thing is we have them for 10 months out of the year. They aren't in a position to go to another competitor. We've taken the steps to get them on board with us. And they're either going to be on board with us, or they're not going to be on board with anybody and they go back," Mohns says.

Obviously, that leaves guest workers somewhat at the mercy of their employers. Immigration consultant Jeannette says it's a deal the men make willingly.

The busload of new visa holders pulls up outside Benchmark's San Diego offices about 4:30 in the afternoon, 22-and-a-half hours after leaving Hermosillo. Friends and family members are waiting to greet the new arrivals, who get a brief introduction.

"Welcome to Benchmark and welcome to the United States. We're glad you're here," Controller John Demoss says, through a translator.

Martin Martinez looks relieved to have arrived at last, but he's still adjusting to cooler San Diego weather. He plans to buy a jacket with his first paycheck. First, though, he'll need a pair of sturdy boots. He starts work the following day.

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