Monday, June 19, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Mexican foreman is essential to growers; he speaks Spanish, hires workers, bridges cultures
By Lynda V. Mapes
MANSON, Chelan County - A system of hiring that has survived on a wink and a nod for years barely even bothers with the wink anymore in Washington's fields and orchards. With a seasonal work force that is as much as 70 percent undocumented, most growers know the bulk of their work force likely is illegal.
Men who have worked their way up from illegal to legal, picker to boss, have the translation skills and cultural links growers need to employ a seasonal work force in Washington that since the 1970s has become nearly 100 percent Mexican.
"We just spread the word," said José Luis Alejo, a 39-year-old orchard foreman in Manson, Chelan County. He calls friends from his hometown, Pajacuarán, Mexico, already here in Washington.
"I say I want good people, I don't want the lazy ones. I tell them when I need them, and they come."
Mexican foremen also may lend the money to pay for a worker's border crossing. Arrange space for a friend in a carload of workers headed north. Help workers find housing. Tell them where to get fake documents.
And hire them for a job in the orchard, a job that allows the worker to pay the foreman the money he borrowed to cross the border.
"I know they are not legal," Alejo said. "They've got their green cards, their Social Security cards; it's a hoax."
In most cases, it is how the foremen, or their fathers before them, got here. It is expected, highly effective, and continues the cycle of migration that has pipelined Mexican workers to the United States for decades.
The era of strict enforcement
Now a U.S. citizen, Alejo was 14 when he and his father crossed illegally into California in 1975 and later moved to Manson to join an uncle.
Theirs was one of the few Mexican families in Manson in those early days, and they lived in fear of immigration raids. "We'd be hiding in the grocery store, afraid to come out, because of the Border Patrol," Alejo said.
He remembers wanting to visit his grandmother back home. But once they were here, it was too dangerous and expensive to go back to Mexico and then try to sneak back into the United States.
"My grandmother would come to the border, we'd arrange a time, and we would go up and meet her there. She would touch us wherever she could through the fence."
Alejo still remembers when he passed the citizenship test: June 17, 1985, at 10 a.m.
His father married a U.S. citizen, so was granted legal residency but chose not to seek U.S. citizenship.
For Alejo, citizenship was important; he wanted to get legal residency for his mother and visiting rights for his grandmother. But his grandmother's health failed and she lived out her days in Pajacuarán, where she died in January.
Foreman's kingly setup
Alejo has worked as foreman for Dale and Jean Peterson of Manson for eight years. Both 70 - they met in first grade - the Petersons run a 55-acre apple orchard. Having Alejo on the payroll allowed them to retire from day-to-day management this year.
In addition to wages of $8 an hour, the Petersons provide Alejo a house, including utilities and the basic cost of his telephone service, health benefits for him, his wife and three children, three weeks paid vacation and a share of the orchard's profits. In 1999, he earned $27,300, including $3,000 in profit sharing.
It's a kingly setup compared with that of most agricultural workers.
The Petersons are unusual employers, providing free lodging even for their seasonal crews. Their crews are as small as five people or as large as 15, depending on the job.
The six worker cabins they provide have kitchens and bathrooms. Jean Peterson keeps fresh white sheets on the beds, a shine on the stainless-steel sinks and tortilla presses in the kitchen cabinets.
The cabins aren't weatherized. So in winter, the Petersons pay seasonal workers a housing stipend for other shelter.
But elsewhere in orchard country, strained housing conditions draw the most attention to the harvest each year. During the cherry season alone, at least 8,000 pickers - some estimate many more - sleep in their cars, in the woods, on riverbanks and by irrigation ditches.
An irony in state law gives growers two choices:
They can provide temporary worker housing that meets certain health standards that include electricity, bathrooms with hot-and-cold running water, refrigeration and solid floors. Or they can provide no housing at all, saving themselves the cost of meeting those requirements.
Alejo does not apologize for hiring undocumented workers to handle the Petersons' harvest.
"You are not a federal agent to be out there . . . harassing these people," he said. "As long as they do the work they are the same people as anyone else, and they are in need of survival. I used to be one of them."
Getting false documents is cheap and easy, even in a small, clean-cut town like Manson, a resort community along Lake Chelan quilted with orchards.
Alejo says there are four "presses" in Manson where anyone can buy counterfeit documents. "Or you can get them in Chelan or Brewster or the headquarters for counterfeit documents in Wenatchee. You don't have to go far."
Or spend much: fork over $60 for "The Combo" - a fake Social Security card and green card - and a worker is out the door in less than an hour.
An unenforceable system
Jean Peterson mailed in more than 50 W-2 forms last year. The Social Security Administration in turn sent her a letter saying about 60 percent of the names in her payroll records did not match valid Social Security numbers on file.
Such mismatches are common. Rates of 60 percent are typical; 100 percent is not unheard of, says Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League. Sometimes the reason is as simple as a misspelled name or a last name left off. More often, the numbers are fake.
The government offers electronic verification of Social Security numbers. But the program is voluntary, and because only five names can be checked on the phone at a time, few growers use it.
By the end of the year, the Social Security Administration expects to provide overnight Internet verification of an unlimited number of names and Social Security numbers. But even then, the program will be voluntary and will not carry penalties.
When a mismatch is identified, growers are supposed to bring the problem to the worker's attention. They are not required to fire workers; indeed, they could be in violation of state and federal labor laws if they fire someone solely on the basis of a mismatch.
"We continually find evidence that workers who represent themselves as legal are undocumented," said Gempler, whose group represents about 800 agricultural employers on labor issues, including wages, immigration and worker housing. "It ends up with the growers essentially breaking the law without knowing it."
It's a system growers say is virtually unenforceable.
"If you used your brain, what do you think they do? They go out and buy another Social Security card," Peterson said. "Or they just move on. It's silly expecting us to solve the problem."
Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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