Current Guest-Worker Program Requires Patience

As the Senate contemplates creating a new guest-worker program, it's worth noting that the U.S. already has a program. A group of farmers in Idaho has been following the rules for years. They've even formed a special association to deal with the massive paperwork generated by the program.

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The Senate's push for new immigration laws includes a plan to create a new guest-worker program to supply legal foreign workers to American farms.

It's hardly a new idea. The U.S. has had a guest-worker program for decades. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, most farmers have been reluctant to use it.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

The recent border crackdown is being felt as far north as the irrigated potato fields of Idaho. Migrant worker Ascencion Moreno(ph) says this spring, Idaho is buzzing with reports of increasing pressure from immigration authorities.

Mr. ASCENCION MORENO: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: There've been dragnets by the border patrol, Moreno says.

But if the border patrol shows up on this farm, Moreno won't have to hide. He's a legal guest-worker. His boss is Rick Pettite(ph), a lanky farmer who speaks fluent Spanish; a language he picked up as a Mormon missionary.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. RICK PETTITE: Go ahead.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PETTITE: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: Pettite depends on foreign workers, but he imports them legally through the federal guest-worker program. He says he's just more comfortable doing things above-board.

Mr. PETTITE: They get on an air-conditioned Greyhound bus and come north with a Visa and a passport. And though some of us think that traveling on a Greyhound bus isn't the best thing in the world, it sure beats the heck out of the alternative of when they used to come in the trunk of somebody's car.

KASTE: In nearby Rupert, the town square is pure Americana, complete with an old fashioned bandstand and a monument to the pioneers. This happens to be the hometown of Lou Dobbs, the CNN Anchor who's known for crusading against illegal immigrants.

Rupert has changed some since Dobbs left town. These days, the storefronts facing the square include a Mexican butcher, a Mexican bakery, and Video Mexico.

But in a nearby office, Micheleen Rowe(ph) is not one who worries about their being too many Mexicans in town. In fact, she says the local farmers who depend on Hispanic workers wish there were more Mexicans around.

Ms. MICHELEEN ROWE (Non-Profit Employee, Rupert, Idaho): They can't find people, legal or illegal, to work for them.

KASTE: Rowe runs a non profit that helps farmers to bring in legal guest workers. There's been a surge in interest in the past few months, Rowe says. The application forms are piling up around her desk.

But it's going to be a long wait. Four government agencies have to sign off on each application. Rowe checks one of her cases on a government webpage.

Ms. ROWE: And it tells me the same thing it's been telling me for three months now, that they received it on February 28th. This employer needed their people here April 1st.

KASTE: This slow bureaucracy is one of the main reasons American farmers have shied away from the guest-worker program. Last year, they brought in fewer than 50,000 of these legal workers, a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated one million illegal immigrants who work in American agriculture.

Farmers also don't like the expense. The program requires them to pay guest-workers more than the prevailing wage, sometimes as much as $2 more per-hour. In California, one producer who uses guest-workers says the system costs him 25 percent more than using other migrant workers.

But the farmers in Idaho who use the guest-worker program say the extra cost is worth it.

George Grant(ph) is having lunch in the general store in Murphy, right off the Snake River. He's been using guest-workers on his farms for 20 years.

Mr. GEORGE GRANT: They're just so much more productive than an illegal workforce that's always on the move and the duck-and-hide, that it more than offsets the cost.

KASTE: Grant is a long-time advocate of expanding the guest worker program. He admits there are many western farmers who would prefer to stick with the current system of hiring immigrants with questionable identity papers.

Mr. GRANT: I call it the wink-and-nod system.

KASTE: But he says they may soon have no choice, especially if the government is serious about expanding the crackdown on illegal workers.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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