[Stop-traffic] News/US: Work visas helping Mexicans, U.S. firms

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Work visas helping Mexicans, U.S. firms
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Nov 13 2000 - 09:37:59 EST

Work visas helping Mexicans, U.S. firms
Guest laborers get good pay, safe passage; busy companies find source
of manpower
By Brendan M. Case, Angela Shah
The Dallas Morning News, November 27, 2000

Rodrigo Domnguez has spent 22 years dodging the U.S. Border Patrol
and toiling illegally for American bosses. Now Uncle Sam is rolling
out the red carpet.

So is Acme Building Brands. The Fort Worth-based company already
legally employs 45 Mexicans at factories in Texas, Arkansas and
Louisiana, and it wants to hire Mr. Domnguez and up to 80 others.

Because of demands from companies such as Acme, natives of the
hardscrabble state of Zacatecas in the highlands of north-central
Mexico can hear opportunity knocking.

"All my life, I've worked in the United States and come back to see
my family," said Mr. Domnguez, 34, who landed his first job picking
oranges in Florida at age 12. "Now I'm going to have benefits just
like American workers, and I won't have to hide from the government."

Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox has proposed sending hundreds of
thousands of his countrymen to work legally in the United States, an
idea critics call unrealistic. But a pilot program in Zacatecas is
already sending scores of workers to Texas with U.S. backing - and is
showing how documented Mexican workers satisfy economic needs on both
sides of the border.

"Our employment situation was very serious, and we just about
exhausted ways to find people," said John C. Hunter, Acme's manager
of human resources and industrial relations, who has traveled to
Zacatecas to interview prospective workers. "We can help these people
here with a fair wage and good benefits. They'll benefit us and we'll
benefit them."

In this record 10th year of economic expansion, companies throughout
the United States face a severe labor shortage. Texas unemployment
levels, at 3.9 percent in October, are scraping record lows. The
North Texas Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors
predicted that construction projects will create 15,000 new jobs over
the next three years in an industry already hard-pressed to meet its
labor needs.

By contrast, Mexico has a surplus of laborers who will gladly take
jobs shunned by Americans. Hundreds of thousands of them swim across
rivers and hike over deserts to cross the border illegally, often
paying outlaw guides called "coyotes" more than $ 1,000 to reach the
United States.

Expanding grants

The United States already grants a small number of work visas to
foreign citizens each year. Agribusiness employers have long used
so-called H2A visas to import thousands of foreign workers, most of
them Mexican, for seasonal work. Congress recently boosted the number
of H1B visas available to technology workers.

Now, industrial and service companies are resorting to H2B visas for
low-skilled non-agricultural workers. To qualify, companies must show
they can't find employees locally. The U.S. Department of Labor
requires them to pay prevailing wages, often higher than the minimum

To help fill the need for workers from quarries to kitchens, without
fueling undocumented immigration, U.S. diplomats in Monterrey helped
establish the Zacatecas program with Gov. Ricardo Monreal six months
ago. Their efforts represent the first time the U.S. government has
worked with a Mexican state to recruit guest workers since at least
1964, when the Bracero Program stopped sending workers north.

Now U.S. officials are expanding the Zacatecas initiative - and
planning a conference about the program in Monterrey in early
December. Their Zacatecas counterparts have discussed work contracts
with labor-hungry American companies from Nevada to New Jersey.

"A lot of U.S. employers depend on Mexican labor," said Armando
Esparza, who oversees Zacatecas' labor recruitment program. "But
Mexicans risk their lives to cross the border, and they make coyotes
rich by paying $ 1,500 to $ 4,000."

Cloudy future

The Immigration and Naturalization Service said it granted 17,285 H2B
visas in fiscal year 2000, which ended in September. That was far
below the 66,000 that can be issued each year but 22 percent above
the 14,193 granted in 1995.

In Texas alone, the state workforce commission processed 646 H2B
visas for state companies in the year ended Sept. 30, twice the
number in 1999. Given the state's economic juggernaut, there could be
room for more: Texas service industries added 77,100 jobs during the
12-month period ending Sept. 30, and construction generated 26,500

"I suspect that programs like the H2B are probably the reason we can
continue to add [jobs] at such a rapid pace," said Clayton
Griffis, a labor market analyst at the Texas Workforce Commission.

To be sure, one big question clouds the future of guest worker
programs: Will American workers and union leaders stand for them if
the economy slows?

"As soon as the economy goes down, it's one of the first rallying
cries we hear," said Carole Wilson, a political science researcher at
Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "So unless Mexico can get
some sort of agreement that these allotted visas will continue
forever, I have a feeling that this is just a temporary effort."

A good situation

Mr. Fox has said he would like to see a permanent labor agreement in
place between the countries, and eventually a common North American
labor market. For now, however, he plans to lobby U.S. officials to
raise the number of H2B visas available for Mexicans, perhaps to as
many as 250,000, according to advisers.

That remains unlikely, political analysts say. But at a time when the
U.S. economy draws more than 300,000 undocumented Mexicans each year,
U.S. employers relish the prospect of more legal guest workers.

That could lead to other programs like the one that has joined poor
workers in Zacatecas with labor-starved companies in Texas, an effort
that has yielded 200 work visas so far.

Zacatecas harbors little industry, and thousands of its people flee
the arid mountain state each year to work illegally in the United
States. Families receive a large chunk of the $ 6 billion to $ 8
billion that undocumented workers send to Mexico annually from the
United States.

American officials hope the Zacatecas program will reduce abuses
associated with H2B visas. The U.S. Consulate in Monterrey once
discovered a labor recruiter who was charging people $ 1,500 for the
permits, even though the processing cost usually falls below $ 200.

"This is one of those rare moments in history when you have a win-win
situation," said Mehron P. Azarmehr, an Austin immigration lawyer
whose firm, Azarmehr & Associates P.C., helped bring together Acme
and Zacatecas. "It's good for the workers, it's good for the
companies, and it brings the two governments together."

Interest in legal Mexican workers is growing nationwide.

A Nevada immigration lawyer recently contacted Zacatecas officials
about arranging visas for casino and hotel workers. In New Jersey,
hotels, golf courses and landscapers hunger for laborers, said Noel
H. Goldman, president of Marcus Drake Consultants of Park Ridge, N. J.

Mr. Goldman already arranges visas for up to 700 people each year
from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and other countries. After a
visit to Zacatecas, he's looking into visas for 1,000 Zacatecans.

"Demand for labor is overwhelming," he said. "I found that the people
in Zacatecas were very, very cooperative and they were very
intelligent. ... We're looking for a big increase from Mexico over
the coming year."

Happy employer

So is EvaMarie Wesemann, human resources director at L&H Packing in
San Antonio. L&H Packing slaughters 1,100 head of cattle a day and
processes the meat into hamburger and taco beef. It supplies
restaurants such as Wendy's, Whataburger and Taco Bell throughout
Texas and the Southwest.

The jobs at L&H are physically demanding, and they pay only $ 5.62 an
hour, rising to $ 10 an hour for overtime. Some of the 700 American
workers routinely worked grueling hours, and some of them told Ms.
Wesemann they needed a rest. But she simply couldn't find new people.

"I wasn't getting the level and caliber of employees I needed, and I
wasn't getting the volume," she said.

Then Mr. Azarmehr steered her toward Zacatecas. On her first trip
there, she hired 52 people, including 40 who could handle knives as
if they were professional butchers. She'll be going back for more
this fall.

"We've had an absolutely wonderful turnaround when it comes to our
ability to produce in our plants," she said. "Our million-dollar
[customer] accounts, who don't care to hear if we're having staffing
problems, have been very happy."

New employees such as brothers Fernando and Rubn Rojero Miranda feel
lucky to keep the butchery humming, despite 12-hour days and other
on-the-job hazards.

Fernando Rojero's arms broke out in a rash after he spent weeks
making choice cuts from the carcasses of freshly slaughtered cattle.

"I'm bathed in sweat and blood all day, which is not very agreeable,"
said Fernando Rojero, 43. "But I'm making $400 a week. [In
Zacatecas,] it's hard to find any work at all."

Grateful workers

At home in Villanueva, Zacatecas, the Rojeros would probably earn $
80 a month as day laborers, at least when work was available.

Sitting on their porch near a dry streambed in Villanueva, the two
spoke of using their U.S. paychecks to roof extra rooms for their
children - and of working their way out of abject poverty.

"Jobs in Mexico only pay you enough to eat, at most," said Rubn
Rojero, 41. "Working in the United States is a sacrifice, but it
helps you get ahead."

Other Mexican workers have found themselves working for Acme in
Millsap, a rural community 40 miles west of Fort Worth. The local
factory, which has perched atop rich shale deposits since 1891,
churns out thousands of bricks a day.

Acme has enough potential to attract the likes of Warren Buffett,
whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought the company earlier this year.
But its labor needs are so acute that executives began looking to
Mexico early this year.

On a recent afternoon in the picturesque colonial city of Zacatecas,
more than 100 men with work shirts and rough hands gathered in the
venerable statehouse.

State officials had screened them for criminal records and health
problems, and now it was time to face Mr. Hunter, the human resources
executive, and his colleagues.

Roberto Hernndez Hernndez, 44, once worked at a Dallas landscaping
company. Now the chance to earn between $ 7 and $ 15 an hour at Acme,
plus safe and legal passage across the border, was drawing him back
to the area.

"I showed I could handle the work in the United States, I showed I
was good at it," he said.

"And I have six kids, so I have a big need to work."

Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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