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Florida's annual citrus harvest is underway. Many of the oranges will be picked by guest workers. So we're reporting on just what a guest worker is. The definition matters because it's a part of our national immigration debate. Some of the presidential candidates want American businesses to lean more heavily on talented guest workers, people brought here to work specific jobs. The number of guest workers is already growing, and this story reveals why the practice is controversial. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The way Justin Sorrells tells the story, there was a moment 17 years ago that changed the way America gets its orange juice.
JUSTIN SORRELLS: We were harvesting one of our family groves with a harvesting crew.
CHARLES: Sorrells is telling me this story while the citrus harvest goes on all around us. There are men on ladders half-hidden by tree branches, gathering fruit into heavy sacks hanging from their shoulders.
SORRELLS: And directly across the street, there was another grove owner that was having trouble getting labor. So he walked across the street and went to our harvest crew and offered them a nickel more a box to walk across the street and pick his oranges instead of picking ours, and the crew decided to do that. And that was the day my father said, this is it. We've got to have more reliability in our labor force.
CHARLES: Sorrells says his father could've offered those workers a little more money, but that would've led to never-ending negotiations with every work crew. So he found an alternative, a way to bring in seasonal farm workers from other countries like Mexico using a category of visa called H-2A. The H-2A program does cost some extra money. Employers have to provide free housing for workers and transportation. They also have to pay a wage that the federal government considers fair. But the good thing if you're an employer is that H-2A workers are only allowed to work for you.
SORRELLS: And we have been 100 percent H-2A labor since that day. We were the first company in the state of Florida to utilize H-2A labor in citrus.
CHARLES: The first of many, though, foreign guest workers now pick most of Florida's oranges and grapefruit. And they're expanding into other crops, too. About 140,000 farm jobs nationwide were filled by H-2A workers last year, almost double the number four years ago. All around the citrus-growing areas of South Florida, you now see old converted school buses on the roads. These are company buses carrying H-2A workers. And in the evening, some of those buses roll into a truck stop on a two-lane country road south of the town of LaBelle. The young men scramble out, trot into the store, line up at the taco counter. This is where I met Esteban Gonzalez from the Mexican state of Veracruz. I spoke to him through a translator.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They don't have a lot of work over in his area, Veracruz. So that's the reason they're here.
CHARLES: Here, he's earning $10.70 an hour and more if he works fast. Gonzalez has been doing this every year for the past eight years. He lives in a housing compound behind this truck stop in one of 30 identical yellow houses. In the back of the house, there's a room where 10 workers sleep. A couple of mattresses are lying on the floor. In the front, there's a kitchen, but the gas stove doesn't work, and the refrigerator barely does.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They got to finish that milk today. If not, it's going to go bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Laughter).
CHARLES: The buses take them to the citrus groves in the morning and back here again in the evening with a stop on the way for some food. It's an austere life, but Gonzalez says he's really only here to work. In fact, his main complaint is there's not enough work. There's a disease called citrus greening, which has cut into Florida's harvest.
ESTEBAN GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Last year and this one, they've been very difficult.
CHARLES: Today, for instance, they were assigned to pick one section of a grove, and it only took three hours, so he only earned about $30. That's happened a lot, he says, and he does feel a little trapped. This is one of the biggest criticisms of the guest worker program, that these workers are not free to look around for other work. They can choose not to come back next year, but this year, they're stuck with the employer who brought them here. And Philip Martin, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says that freedom to find a better deal has been really important for regular farm workers who are here permanently.
PHILIP MARTIN: The biggest thing that has helped farm workers has not been unions, maybe labor laws somewhat, but it's been cell phones because they can call each other and say, this guy's paying a little more per bin than over there, and workers can move.
CHARLES: Martin thinks the number of H-2A workers will keep growing. He thinks it's already about 10 percent of the agricultural workforce, and it could reach 20 percent, even though employers are required to hire so-called domestic workers first. So increasingly, the country's food will be harvested by these two groups, foreign and domestic workers working side-by-side but living very different lives. Now many of the domestic workers also came here from other countries. It's estimated that about half of them are in the U.S. illegally. And it's actually hard to say who's better off, the H-2A worker or the undocumented domestic worker.
JAIME: (Through interpreter) Yes, my name is Jaime. I am an agricultural worker. I picked citrus for over 15 years.
CHARLES: He switched to other crops this year, though, partly because of the impact of citrus greening.
JAIME: (Speaking Spanish).
CHARLES: "I get to decide how much I'll work," he says, "where I'll work. And I have a life here. I'm here with my family." He pulls out his smartphone and plays me a recording of his daughter practicing for a presentation at school. This daughter was born here. She's a citizen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: My ultimate goal is to become a pediatrician. I like helping people out whether it's dedicating my free hours to help out in the community, at my church and helping to tutor younger students after school.
CHARLES: But another aspect of his life is fear, enough fear that he did not want me to use his last name. He and a couple of his other children are not here legally. On the H-2A side of this divide, Esteban Gonzalez from Veracruz says he'd rather be here legally.
GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Just to have the papers, it's better to be legal.
CHARLES: He pulls out his passport. There is a visa, proof that he belongs here. Gonzalez has a family, too. That family is a big reason why he is here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's got one of his kids in the university, and the other one's going to school. And he at least makes the payment for next semester for his daughter or for his son in the university. At least he's providing for them.
CHARLES: I asked each of these workers, which of you has the better life? And each one said, I think I do. But each one also said what he'd really like is to be here legally and also have the freedom to choose his own job. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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