Many illegal workers are unaware of H-2A

Medill News ServiceNovember 6, 2011 

Legal and undocumented agriculture workers perform the same, arduous tasks but only the legal few are guaranteed a higher wage, free housing and other perks.

Undocumented workers would be willing to come to the U.S. legally, given the opportunity, they say. But many don't know about the H-2A visa, the temporary guest worker program for agriculture. And farmers, the ones who make the decision to issue visas, often choose to hire undocumented workers.

Even in North Carolina, where farmers have banded together to help better navigate the program through the North Carolina Growers Association, the majority of farm hands remain undocumented. Estimates put the total number of unauthorized workers at 70,000 to 100,000, compared with 9,000 H-2A workers.

Farmers say the program is overly bureaucratic and costly.

Cruz Diaz Montalvo is one of the lucky laborers. As an H-2A worker on a Carthage farm he is guaranteed a $9.30-an-hour wage, free housing and free transportation to and from Mexico.

His undocumented counterpart gets about 40 cents for every bucket of sweet potatoes he picks. From those wages, he'll pay $1,500 to a coyote - the person who helps undocumented immigrants jump the U.S. border. His boss also deducts money for housing and taxes.

The differences between farms that use H-2A visa workers and undocumented workers doesn't stop at wages. Housing and working conditions vary as well.

For instance, in a camp for undocumented workers, toilets are inches apart and there are no dividing walls. Showers lack partitions.

"Could it be better? Of course it could be better," said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the NCGA, which accounts for more than 7,000 H-2A workers. "But you can't produce crops cheaply and efficiently and provide Biltmore-style housing for farm workers."

While some undocumented laborers experience better conditions than their H-2A counterparts, in general H-2A carries a higher standard because 100 percent of H-2A housing is inspected, Wicker said.

Without certified housing, H-2A employers can't get workers. And while non-H2A housing is legally required to be inspected to the same standards, the North Carolina Department of Labor discovers dozens of unregistered sites each year.

In 2004, the NCGA signed a labor contract with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee on behalf of H-2A workers. It provides more guarantees for workers, including sick pay and establishes a formal grievance process independent of the Department of Labor. Undocumented workers' only real recourse is an anonymous hotline to the NCDOL.

The protections have brought Montalvo back year after year. He plans to return next year - his 23rd season. The work, he says, has helped pay for his children's education. One has become a teacher, another a lawyer and two more are in college.

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