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The U.S.'s increased reliance on farmworkers from other countries is drawing concern

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It's peak harvest time across the United States - that time of year when fruits and vegetables must be picked, or they'll rot. And the U.S. is increasingly relying on farmworkers brought in from other countries to do that picking. The federal guest worker program for farms has exploded. It has quadrupled in size in 10 years. And as NPR's Andrea Hsu reports, that growth has raised a lot of red flags.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: The fertile Yakima Valley in South Central Washington State is famous for its apples, sweet cherries and blueberries - all crops that require a lot of labor, often starting in darkness at 4 or 5 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: More and more, farms around here are turning to guest workers to do the work - the vast majority of them from Mexico. So far this year, employers in Washington have requested more than 37,000 foreign farmworkers, up from just 6,000 a decade ago. It's kept the FairBridge Inn in the city of Yakima busy.

BRETT VALICOFF: At this facility, we're about 1,100 beds.

HSU: Brett Valicoff is general manager of First Street Investments. About five years ago, the company took what was just another roadside hotel and turned it into a guest worker dorm.

VALICOFF: We basically took out the king-size, queen-size beds and installed bunk beds.

HSU: Bunk beds for four to six workers per room. Under the guest worker program, farms must provide housing, and this is a convenient option. Every year, Valicoff has seen demand grow.

VALICOFF: They are bringing in more people and for longer durations of time.

HSU: The reason for all this demand - farms around here say they can't find enough workers.

DILLON HONCOOP: It has become a nightmare for people to find anyone of any shape, size, persuasion, whatever (laughter) to help bring in the harvest.

HSU: That's Dillon Honcoop, who represents farmers in Northwest Washington through the group Save Family Farming. He says labor wasn't such an issue when he was growing up on a raspberry farm near the Canadian border. Migrating Mexican families would work their way up from Texas, through California and finally to Washington.

HONCOOP: You know, we would be one of the last stops up here way up in the North.

HSU: But, Honcoop says, times have changed. For one thing, the southern border tightened, making it risky for Mexican laborers and their families to cross. Many of those who'd been in the U.S. a while, documented or not, settled down. Now the older generation is aging out, their bodies worn down by the work, and the younger generation is leaving the fields behind.

HONCOOP: There's upward mobility for folks.

HSU: Enter the federal government's H-2A visa program. Farms can apply to bring in guest workers for the season. They can bring the same workers back year after year. At the end of the season, the workers go home. Now, this kind of predictability does come with a cost. In addition to housing, employers must also pay for transportation, and they must pay workers a wage set by the government that is higher than minimum wage. In Washington state, it's just shy of $18 an hour. Dillon Honcoop says farms are grateful to have this as an option, but...

HONCOOP: People are not in love with this program. They view it as a last resort. It's very expensive, and the amount of red tape that it comes with is huge. And it's overwhelming.

HSU: And that's by design to ensure that farmworkers who are already in the U.S. are not harmed by this program. And yet, still it happens. The U.S. Department of Labor recently cited 44 employers in the Mississippi Delta for, among other things, giving guest workers preferential treatment over locals. And right here in Washington state...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a civil rights lawsuit against a mushroom producer in Yakima County.

HSU: ...The state just won a settlement in a case against Ostrom Mushroom Farms after finding it had discriminated against local workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Specifically firing its local mushroom pickers who are mostly women and replacing them with foreign agricultural workers who are mostly men.

HSU: In Bellingham, Wash., the farmworkers' rights group Community to Community Development worries the domestic workforce is likewise being pushed out. Zenaida Perez, a community organizer, came to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 17. She's picked strawberries and blueberries for years.

ZENAIDA PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: "I've been here a long time," she says. "I have children here. If I can't find work, I won't be able to pay rent." And beyond her own personal concerns, Perez is worried about the welfare of the guest workers once they arrive.

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: "They will not speak up if they're being mistreated because they're afraid of being fired and sent home," she says. Under the H-2A program, guest workers' legal status in the U.S. is tied to their one employer which makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation. Case in point - Operation Blooming Onion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Prosecutors calling it modern-day slavery.

HSU: The federal investigation found guest workers in Georgia forced to dig onions with their bare hands while being underpaid and threatened with violence and deportation. They were housed in unsanitary quarters with little food and no safe water...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Surrounded by an electric fence.

HSU: Two dozen people were indicted. Now Congress is considering a bill that would give guest workers more protections, including the right to sue their employers. And in a nod to farm owners who say they are following the rules and treating their workers right, the bill would reduce costs and make the whole process easier. Pass or fail, one thing is certain - farms are already highly dependent upon this workforce, and that dependence is only growing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: After all, the cherries won't wait for all the problems to be sorted out. Someone's got to pick them. Andrea HSU, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.