Working in foreign fields

Migrants: Seasonal agricultural laborers come to Harford County, leaving their families in hopes of finding higher wages.

October 19, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SUN STAFF

Martin Medina, 30, stretches plastic hose across a field at Foxborough Nursery in Street as Juvencio Arzate, 21, connects the hose to a water pipe. The trees and shrubs in the nursery are thirsty. Medina, Arzate and four other men -- all Mexicans between 21 and 30 years old -- have spread the hoses over the field of rare species of pine so that the steady drip of water will keep the soil and the roots moist.

The Mexican workers at Foxborough Nursery are among 31 migrants who have traveled to Harford County on H-2A visas to find better work. They left their families and endured a 72-hour bus ride to Maryland. Medina has left his wife, 3-year-old son, 1-year-old daughter and mother in Toluca, a town near Mexico City, to work at Foxborough. He says he misses his family but that he can't resist the money he earns in the United States. Before coming to the United States, Medina had worked at a Pepsi plant, where he said he earned in one week what he earns in one day in Harford County.

Each year, about 50,000 foreign migrant workers come into the country on H-2A visas to provide seasonal agricultural work on farms or at nurseries such as Foxborough. The number of H-2A visas issued has been increasing steadily, along with H-2B visas for nonagricultural seasonal labor, because of increased U.S. border control and increased awareness of the program among farm employers, said Stephen Stefanko, the certifying officer of the U.S. Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration.

"There is a common recognition that there is not an adequate number of farm workers in the U.S.," Stefanko said.

Much of the need for migrant farm workers is satisfied through the hiring of illegal immigrants, whose numbers are estimated to run into the millions. Matthew Grayson, general manager of Foxborough Nursery, acknowledged the presence of illegal immigrants in Harford County in the past, but, he says, he doesn't know of any now.

To hire migrant workers, growers must demonstrate their need for foreign help. To do this, the employer must advertise for help in local newspapers and on radio. If they cannot find sufficient help, growers can then apply for certification from the Labor Department.

Grayson said that he cannot find enough help in the United States.

"It is very sad that I cannot hire an American citizen to do the job that these guys do," Grayson said of his seven migrant workers.

Although his company has been hiring migrant workers for the past two years, Grayson says he still feels almost overwhelmed at the amount of paperwork involved in the process. He must provide adequate housing -- it must be inspected by the Department of Health and by fire officials -- for all the migrants, and he must carry workers' compensation insurance. Foxborough and other agricultural businesses that hire migrant labor also must guarantee to pay the immigrants for at least three-quarters of the work that they were contracted to do, pay all travel expenses once one-half of the contracted labor is completed and pay at least the minimum wage -- $7.97 an hour in Maryland.

"The government makes you jump through hoops. Many people do go [the illegal] route, and I don't blame them. But doing it legally, I can sleep at night," Grayson said.

Once granted an H-2A certification, a company can either hire immigrants directly or through a private agency. Grayson knew Medina and Arzate before their employment at Foxborough through another area grower.

Foxborough Nursery houses its workers in a three-bedroom farmhouse -- the Labor Department classifies it as a labor camp -- with two bathrooms and a large kitchen with a dishwasher and washing machine. Only a prominently displayed fire extinguisher and several bilingual government notices distinguish it from a normal residence.

There are four certified labor camps in Harford County for no more than 31 immigrants. They range in size from three to 14 people. The farmhouse at Foxborough is certified for eight.

Postcards and pictures are taped on the wall, small reminders of home. Next year, Grayson said, he will try to rework the contract he has with his Mexican employees so that they will work at Foxborough for five months instead of the 10 they spent there this year.

Medina, Arzate and the other workers miss their families, but say they cannot reject the salary Foxborough promises. Medina sends much of his paycheck back to Toluca via Western Union or through banks.

"We like America for money, but we like Mexico for family," he said.

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