BENTON CITY, Benton County — Javier Fabian got on a bus in the Mexican border town of Nogales a few months back, journeying north for a season in Washington’s orchards and vineyards that starts by trimming the branches of stout Bing cherry trees.
Under an agricultural-visa program that brings in foreign workers, Fabian will spend eight months in the Columbia Basin. He’ll prune, thin and pick the bounty for a farming operation that spreads across 300 acres of irrigated desert land.
“I want to build a good house with the savings from this job, but it’s really hard to have the family so far away,” said the 23-year-old Fabian, who left behind his wife and a 2-year-old daughter in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.
In Washington state, the number of foreign agricultural workers like Fabian has more than quadrupled in the past half-decade to more than 13,000 annually as growers seek to ease a labor crunch that has left some unable to get their fruit harvested on time.
Now growers want the Trump administration to make it even easier to hire more foreign workers, while hoping the new president won’t aggravate the labor shortage by sending back to Mexico more farmworkers who came here illegally.
“Two years ago, we lost 10 of our 30 acres of Gala apples because we couldn’t get them picked in time. It was a huge hit for us,” said Shawn Gay, a Benton City grower. That experience prompted Gay to turn to Mexican guest workers for part of his labor force, which this year includes Fabian and 25 others.
The farm-labor markets have tightened amid a dramatic 21st century decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. This has reduced the numbers of undocumented U.S.-based workers who long have been a mainstay of the agricultural workforce, and the downward trend runs counter to President Donald Trump’s claims of a freewheeling border that must be shuttered by construction of a great wall.
With Trump moving from the campaign trail to the White House, the farm-labor shortage appears to be entering a new and more volatile stage.
The president in February broadened the scope of immigrants targeted for deportation, and that has raised fears of federal agents showing up in orchards and fields.
As enforcement is stepped up, many growers are finding common ground with the local laborers who are still a key part of their workforce.
“There are thousands and thousands of people who have helped … to build the wealth of this agricultural community. We appreciate that and support the people who have supported us,” Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, said in March at a community meeting in Yakima about Trump’s immigration policies.
“There is a kind of mob mentality going on right now, and I don’t like it. We need to protect our economy and treat people fairly.”
Looking to Trump
The growers’ push to expand the H-2A agricultural-workers visa program also can be a source of tension.
The increased uncertainty surrounding the fate of workers who arrived in the U.S. illegally is giving growers new incentive to move toward the security of the federal H-2A program.
Visa-holders such as Fabian have a temporary, legal right to work in U.S. agriculture. They aren’t vulnerable to raids by federal agents as are workers who may have gained employment through false documents.
For the growers, the H-2A program brings reliability. They can typically count on the workers to stay because each visa binds a worker to a single employer. There is no hunting around for another job.
In Washington state, these visa holders now represent more than 20 percent of the seasonal farm-labor workforce.
Still, under the Obama administration, many growers and farmers complained the program was too bureaucratic, and workers sometimes arrived late to the harvest.
Many Washington growers voted for Trump, who won all but one county east of the Cascades.
Early on, it appears Trump — whose family owns a vineyard in Virginia that uses H-2A workers — may lend a hand. A leaked White House draft executive order calls for Trump, within three months of his inauguration, to receive a list of options to ensure “efficient processing” of H-2A visas.
“We are very positive about the Trump administration. I was in D.C. in December and met with the transition team, and our industry lobbyists have followed up,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, a labor association that contracts with farmers and growers to bring in most of the state’s foreign agricultural workers.
Any move to streamline the program is likely to face opposition from farmworker advocates. They want more oversight of a program that has sometimes resulted in abusive treatment of foreign workers. A California strawberry grower, for example, demanded his Mexican H-2A workers pay kickbacks, a scheme that was investigated by the Labor Department and resulted last year in a $2.4 million federal judgment.
Farmworker advocates say the growing presence of foreign workers also can undermine efforts to organize local workers to improve their conditions. In a class-action lawsuit that resulted in a $1.2 million preliminary settlement this month, Columbia Legal Services alleged that one major grower — Mercer Canyons, in Klickitat County — failed to follow federal laws that require them to offer jobs to U.S. workers before bringing in foreign workers.
“We worry that there is no real preference for U.S. workers, even though the law clearly says there should be,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services.
Legal and feeling ‘secure’
Mexican farmworkers who get H-2A visas must return home at the end of their annual contracts, so these jobs do not offer long-term opportunities.
But, while here, they can earn far higher wages than in their homeland.
Under a 2017 wage rate set by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, foreign farmworkers must be paid at least $13.38 an hour. They often make considerably more when paid on a piece rate keyed to productivity.
Israel Gomez, a 22-year-old visa holder from the state of Durango, said he can make more than eight times what he can in Mexico each week. And rather than risk a perilous illegal border crossing, his trip north is paid for by his U.S. employer.
“You heard people tell stories in the past — how they walked for weeks and would risk their lives,” Gomez said. “This way, I feel secure.”
Gomez and 10 other workers now live at Ringold, an austere but clean bunkhouse near Mesa, in Franklin County, that includes a communal kitchen where they cook their meals and prepare field lunches with food they buy during weekly trips to Tri-Cities supermarkets.
Such bunkhouses — funded by a mix of state and industry money — have been springing up all over remote corners of Eastern Washington to meet visa requirements that all foreign workers get free lodging certified as adequate by the federal Labor Department.
The Ringold camp is operated by Wafla, which offers a kind of one-stop shopping that recruits labor, arranges for transportation and can help find lodging.
The association initially served larger farms, some that hire hundreds of workers each year under the H-2A program. But the association this year also has recruited workers for smaller farms, such as a grass-seed operation, where Gomez and his colleagues now spend their days swinging hoes to kill weeds that — if not removed — would taint the crop.
On his first day on the job, Gomez’s toughest challenge was a chilly wind that whipped across the field, an abrupt change from the warmer temperatures back home. But the work itself was “not too bad,” he said.
In Washington, immigrants who don’t have legal status account for nearly half of the state’s farmworkers, according to a Pew Research Center study. Other surveys put the percentage for seasonal laborers considerably higher.
Some come north from California, and only stay a few months. Others have put down roots in communities across the Eastern Washington agricultural heartland. In Pasco, where more than half the population is Hispanic, Latino businesses such as Viera’s Bakery, a Mexican panaderia that offers specialties such as empanadas, are anchors of the downtown business district.
Their numbers swelled during a great wave of Mexican immigration, much of it illegal, through the early 21st century. But during the five-year period ending in 2012, Mexican immigration declined by 57 percent compared to the previous five years, according to a study by University of Texas and University of New Hampshire researchers.
The labor shortage has pushed up wages.
One Pasco couple, who a decade ago paid a smuggler thousands of dollars to get them across the border, made $56,000 last year. The money, the husband said, helped make the final payments on a modest home where they are raising three children.
“It is ours now; we are the legal owners,” he said as he relaxed in the living room after a day spent pruning cherry trees.
Through the course of the year, he works for different farmers and growers, always looking to maximize his earnings. In some seasons that might mean picking cherries, and at another time, cutting asparagus. Through texts and social media, it’s easy to find out who is paying the best wages.
He isn’t interested in a contract, such as those entered into by many H-2A workers, that would bind him to one grower for much of the year.
The hard physical work eventually pushes many away from agriculture. They may start their own enterprise, or move into construction or other businesses that have been looking for workers as the economy rebounded from the Great Recession.
But he says he still likes this work — the “birds, trees and nature.”
For his children, though, he has other dreams.
“I don’t want them to work in farming. It is too hard,” he said. “Maybe my son, he will be a doctor.”
He also thinks a lot about family, including his mother and an ill brother, back in Mexico.
He has not dared to return home for a visit for fear he wouldn’t be able to make his way back north. That fear has escalated with Trump in the White House, but not enough to keep him — and thousands of other workers who are here illegally — away from the fields and farms where they make their livings.
But rumors are rampant, with purported sightings of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents enough to keep him — on occasion — away from a grocery store.
In February, an overflow crowd of some 200 people showed up for a Friday open house at the legal clinic at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project office in Granger.
“It was chaos. We couldn’t handle them all,” recalls Mirta Laura Contreras, directing attorney.
Hoping for reform
At Wafla’s meeting last month in Yakima, the Trump administration approach to immigration was a big topic of conversation.
“I don’t think there is a person in this room who voted for President Trump who wouldn’t vote for him again tomorrow,” said Fazio, the association’s executive director. “But, I mean it’s been a wild ride.”
At a briefing, Fazio handed out tip sheets for growers to respond to ICE agents who might show up in their orchards: Get names, follow them, don’t interfere, don’t mislead.
Speakers also tried to handicap the prospects for immigration reform long sought by growers — a formula that would offer some path to a legal status for undocumented farmworkers now in this country, as part of a broader congressional overhaul. Congress also could mandate use of a computerized system, known as E-Verify, that screens out false identifications, creating a kind of virtual wall to discourage illegal immigration.
Despite Trump’s campaign talk of deportations, the president last month signaled his willingness to consider such a reform package, declaring that the “time is right.”
But such proposals have failed in years past. And at the Yakima meeting, agricultural industry officials appeared skeptical that legislation could pass this year.
“The probability of getting anything through Congress is quite low,” Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, told the growers.
Even if immigration reform does somehow become law, Washington growers expect that the tight border — along with the aging of those workers now in the U.S. — will push them to hire more foreign laborers.
Gay, the Benton City grower, this year noted far fewer U.S. workers interested in jobs in his orchard. And he plans to invest in more housing to accommodate what he expects — in the years ahead — will be a largely foreign workforce.
“Labor is one of your biggest issues when you look at success or failure,” Gay said. “We have to figure out how to make this thing work.”
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