RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week's boycott and political rallies across the country have turned 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 the programs are beginning to spread to year-round occupations here in California.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:
It's 7:00 in the morning, and 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(ph) is tired and hungry.
Mr. MARTIN MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
HORSLEY: Inside his green Mexican passport, Martinez carries an orange card that shows he's eligible for an H2B, 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.
Mr. MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
HORSLEY: 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 from 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 U.S. 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 Jeanette, who helped arrange the visas, says despite these bureaucratic headaches, it's worth it.
Mr. PATRICK JEANETTE (Immigration Consultant): When these workers come in and they are documented, they're not looking over their shoulders wondering if la Migra is going to be busting them. And so there's a lot more emphasis on their work than there is on being on defense.
HORSLEY: Before going to the landscaping companies, Jeanette 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. Jeanette says the men can spend up to ten months in the U.S., then they have to go home for a month or two before applying for a visa renewal.
Mr. JEANETTE: They go home wearing brand new clothes. They are saving their money and, you know, years down the line they're going to be driving a nice new vehicle. And so, you know, there's a sense of proudness when they go back to their home village.
HORSLEY: Many of the men have left wives and children behind for the promise of better wages in the United States.
Mr. LUIS FERNANDO REYES GASKAR(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
HORSLEY: Luis Fernando Reyes Gaskar says it's hard to make money in the cornfields 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 H2B visas. Patrick Jeanette says that barely puts a dent in the demand of U.S. employers.
Like President Bush, Jeanette would like to see the guest worker program expanded. But critics, like Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, argue the government already lets too many foreigners into the country under these guest worker programs.
Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Spokesman, Federation for American Immigration Reform): For a long time, a lot of 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 to attract workers who are available and already in this country; citizens and legal permanent residents. And we shouldn't have government programs that are designed to keep wages in certain sectors of the labor market down.
HORSLEY: The starting wage for the San Diego landscapers is between $7.50 and $8.50 an hour.
Vice President Craig Mohns of Benchmark Landscaping, says his company offers roughly the same pay to U.S. residents, but it doesn't get many takers.
Mr. CRAIG MOHNS (Vice President, Benchmark Landscaping): Believe it or not, finding good workers, even here in San Diego, is hard. 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 the other areas of restaurants and, you know, 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.
HORSLEY: 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 simply went on to work for Benchmark's competitors. The company doesn't want that to happen again.
Mr. MOHNS: With this program, the nice thing is we have them for ten 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. 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.
HORSLEY: Obviously, that leaves guest workers somewhat at the mercy of their employers. Immigration consultant Jeanette says it's a deal the men make willingly.
The busload of new visa holders pulls up outside Benchmark's San Diego's 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 from company controller, John DeMoss.
Mr. JOHN DEMOSS (Company Controller, Benchmark Landscaping): Hola.
Unidentified Man #1: Hola.
Unidentified Man #2: Hola.
Mr. DEMOSS: (Foreign language spoken). And welcome to Benchmark and welcome to the United States. We're glad you're here.
HORSLEY: Martin Martinez looks relieved to have arrived at last. But he's still adjusting to the cooler San Diego weather.
Mr. MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
HORSLEY: 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.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.
And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm John YDSTIE.