CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Agriculture

January 9, 2013

Mexico, Canada partner on program for guest workers

OJOCALIENTE, Mexico — When Oscar Reyes heads north for seasonal work every spring, he no longer pays a smuggler to sneak him through the desert past the U.S. Border Patrol.

He takes Air Canada.

Reyes earns $10.25 an hour tending grapes and spraying pesticides at a vineyard in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, working eight months straight, seven days a week.

He was one of nearly 16,000 temporary workers from Mexico imported by Canada last year, part of a government-to-government agreement that Mexican officials view as a potential model for an expanded "guest worker" program in the United States.

"I come home loaded with money, and I don't have to worry about anything," said Reyes, who is back home for the winter with his family. New toys were scattered across the living room.

With President Barack Obama's re-election in November, and the overwhelming support he received from Hispanic voters, expectations are high that he will take up the nettlesome cause of U.S. immigration reform in his second term.

If so, the most contentious issue is likely to be the fate of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants living in the United States. But the debate is also expected to include proposals for a massive expansion of temporary worker programs to meet future U.S. demand for legal, low-skilled labor.

The United States gives out about 50,000 seasonal agricultural visas per year, nearly all of them to Mexican workers. But U.S. farmers, immigrant advocate groups, labor unions and Mexican officials say that the current U.S. program is a mess: inefficient, bureaucratic and vulnerable to abuses by swindlers and shady recruiters who charge potential workers thousands of dollars to find jobs for them and prepare their visa applications.

The frustrations have left many looking north, to Canada, where government officials partner with their Mexican counterparts to recruit workers, expedite visas, guarantee health and safety standards, and coordinate travel arrangements and pay.

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Agriculture