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Western Farms Look for More Immigrant Workers

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Western Farms Look for More Immigrant Workers

Economy

Western Farms Look for More Immigrant Workers

Western Farms Look for More Immigrant Workers

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5400389/5400390" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A field hand from Thailand harvests oranges in a grove in Visalia in Southern California.

A field hand from Thailand harvests oranges in a grove in Visalia in Southern California. Carrie Kahn, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Carrie Kahn, NPR

As Congress debates proposals to crack down on illegal immigration, major farm operations in the West say they can't hire enough immigrant workers, legal or otherwise. We talk to a job broker who's in the business of finding immigrants to harvest crops in places like Visalia, Calif.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Senate leaders yesterday, agreed on a plan to revive their immigration bill, a bill that could give millions of illegal aliens a chance to become U.S. citizens. The full senate is expected to take up the legislation next week. As the debate in Washington continues, some farm operators in the west say they can't get enough workers. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report on one man who's made a business of supplying immigrant laborers--a business, not without controversy.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Mordechai Orian is in the foreign import business. He supplies American farmers with what they need. Not fertilizer or tractors, but a steady flow of legal workers. He takes care of all the immigration paperwork and even the payroll. The farmer just pays him.

Mr. MORDECHAI ORIAN (President, Global Horizons): We do everything. We are one-stop solution. You call us. You say, hi, I need 40 guys, this and this date, until that and that date

KAHN: Orian is an Israeli immigrant who likes to be called Motty. He says he use to bring workers to the U.S. from Latin America, but claims they drank too much and never went home when their visas ran out. Now he prefers importing Southeast Asians.

Mr. ORIAN: Because they love their job. They love farming. And as long as they can make money for one or two years, they'll go home. They happy to go home, and they know they won't be legal. That's the key.

Ms. PRANI TOMBPINCHAL(ph) (Translator): (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: In an orange grove in Visalia, California, 18 workers from Thailand listen to instructions from one of Orian's translators, Prani Tombpinchal. They all wear long sleeves and facemasks, as they climb high into the trees. The Thai workers fill huge cloth bags hanging from their necks, and dump the oranges into a nearby bin.

(Soundbite of oranges falling)

ROVNER: Worker, Chiacorn Pracha(ph), lifts his thick ski mask. He says if there's enough work he can send $2,000 home a month. He says that makes being so far from home worth it. Prani translates.

Ms. TOMBPINCHAL: Yeah. I mean, just for his family, his kids and family.

ROVNER: On this day, though, the work ends early. Truck driver Emilio Vaquez(ph) comes to haul the oranges. He says having the Thai workers here is unsettling.

Mr. EMILIO VAQUEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

ROVNER: Vaquez says there are plenty of local pickers without work. Referring to the Thais as, those people, Vaquez says he doesn't understand why they get preferential treatment. But when asked why he doesn't pick oranges anymore, Vaquez says truck driving pays better.

Agriculture economist Philip Martin says if trends continue, the farm workers of tomorrow are not growing up in the United States.

Dr. PHILIP MARTIN (Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California-Davis): New entries to the farm labor force are almost 100 percent born in other countries. Therefore, the main issue is under what circumstances will U.S. farm employers get access to those workers?

ROVNER: Most farmers want the government to ease guest worker regulations. But worker advocates and state regulators warn of abuses. And they point to Mordechai Orian's history of violation; among them, several warnings he received in Washington State, before regulators revoked his business license late last year.

Ms. SHERYL HUTCHISON (Labor Department, Washington State): He got a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: Sheryl Hutchison, of Washington State's Labor Department, says Orian was cited for safety, housing, wage, and hiring violations.

Ms. HUTCHISON: It finally came to the point where it wasn't just about some paperwork not being filed. It was about a number of things that were affecting workers' lives.

ROVNER: While admitting some minor mistakes, Orian claims he was targeted by entrenched labor interests. He's since entered into an agreement with the United Farm Workers that automatically gives the Thai workers union protection. Orian may have mollified his former labor rivals, but he still faces legal problems in other states. And in California, two of the three packinghouses Orian had deals with pulled out, saying the Thai workers were too slow and expensive.

Orian says he's not worried. He says it's always hard for people to get use to a new thing.

Mr. ORIAN: That's why it felt like I'm doing something good here. Not only, you know, just bring the labor, making the money. It was something that was a mission for me in agricultural, because I grew up in agriculture. So I felt great about it.

ROVNER: Washington State officials will hear Orian's appeal this fall. Until then, he says he hopes to bring in as many as 5,000 workers to pick crops this year in 27 other states.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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