The profiles a 71-year old Vietnam vet growing onions and corn on his Western Colorado 1000 acre farm. John Harold brought up seasonal workers from Mexico legally under the H-2A ‘guest worker’ program. This year, because the program’s minimal wage had been raised, he took a risk of hiring only 2/3 of his usual Mexican contingent, figuring he could hire the other 1/3 locally.
“It didn’t take me six hours to realize I’d made a heck of a mistake,” Mr. Harold said, standing in his onion field on a recent afternoon as a crew of workers from Mexico cut the tops off yellow onions and bagged them.
Six hours was enough, between the 6 a.m. start time and noon lunch break, for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard. On the Harold farm, pickers walk the rows alongside a huge harvest vehicle called a mule train, plucking ears of corn and handing them up to workers on the mule who box them and lift the crates, each weighing 45 to 50 pounds.
Harold scrambled and was able to get more H-2A workers before his crops rotted. While politicians charge that ‘illegal’ immigrants take good American jobs, the reality is that Americans really don’t want those jobs. And at least in some cases, small farmers are the first to suffer.
The H-2A program, in particular, in trying to avoid displacing American citizens from jobs, strongly encourages farmers to hire locally if they can, with a requirement that they advertise in at least three states. That forces participants to take huge risks in guessing where a moving target might land — how many locals, how many foreigners — often with an entire season’s revenue at stake. Survival, not civic virtue, drives the equation, they say.
Only 56,000 workers come to the US for seasonal farm work, a fraction of the number needed. So when ‘locals’, – meaning white, Asian and black locals – don’t want the jobs farmers have little choice but hire from the huge pools of Mexican labor available to them outside the H-2A program.