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US farmers fuel surge in guest-worker visas as illegal labor dwindles

A field of lettuce grows in front of the border fence San Luis, Arizona, on Jan. 30, 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Caitlin O'Hara1 / 9
Workers harvest bunches of cilantro in Somerton, Arizona on Jan. 29, 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Caitlin O'Hara2 / 9
Canatlan is one of the most famous apple producing municipalities in Mexico. Farmers in the U.S look for people with a background in the industry when hiring. Photo for The Washington Post by Luis Antonio Rojas3 / 9
About 4,000 of the H-2A agriculture workers now come from El Mezquital, one of Mexico’s poorest regions. Photo for The Washington Post by Luis Antonio Rojas4 / 9
Ezequiel Villanueva lime-washes the base of an apple tree in the Canatlán municipality, in Durango State, Mexico on January 17, 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Luis Antonio Rojas5 / 9
Muddy boots line the wall of an apartment complex after workers spent the day harvesting leafy greens in Yuma, Arizona on Jan. 29, 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Caitlin O'Hara6 / 9
In rural Mexico, temporary visas have always been coveted, and the surge in demand for legal workers is already remaking entire towns. Photo for The Washington Post by Luis Antonio Rojas7 / 9
A woman walks in Canatlan, Mexico, on January 17, 2019. Canatlán is one of the most famous apple producing municipalities in the country. Photo for The Washington Post by Luis Antonio Rojas8 / 9
Farm workers ride a bus that will take them to work in the field on Jan. 30, 2019 in San Luis, Ariona. Photo for The Washington Post by Caitlin O'Hara9 / 9

DURANGO, Mexico - For decades, U.S. farmers, landscapers and builders tapped a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor: the waves of undocumented immigrants coming across the southern border. The workers arrived in time for harvests and construction booms. They did the low-wage manual labor that Americans were unwilling to do.

By the 2000s, more than half of American farmworkers were undocumented, according to the Labor Department. But now - thanks to border enforcement, the surging cost of smugglers and changes in migration patterns - the number of people crossing into the United States illegally is nearing the lowest level since the early 2000s. There are more Mexicans leaving the United States than arriving there.

For the White House, that might be a triumph. But for the agriculture industry, the impact is acute. Each year, its labor force dwindles.

To fill those positions, employers have turned to temporary visa programs that recruit workers in Mexico and Central America. Since 2016, the number of U.S. agricultural visas has grown from 165,000 to 242,000, a record high, according to the Labor Department. Amid an intractable debate over immigration and border security, America's labor force is quietly being transformed, as many employers see no choice but to shift from illegal to legal labor.

Visa recruiters are now driving into remote villages in Mexico, broadcasting their hiring sprees on portable radios, loudspeakers and Facebook ads. In rural America, farmers are converting hotels into dormitories for visiting Mexican apple-pickers.

Despite his claim that immigrants take jobs away from Americans, President Donald Trump has touted the guest worker program, acknowledging the difficulty in finding American manual laborers and pledging to make it easier for farmers to hire workers legally.

The country's temporary foreign worker program includes a category for nonagricultural jobs, known as H-2B visas. Despite a huge demand from industries that are also struggling to replace undocumented workers - such as shrimping and hospitality - H-2B visas are capped annually at 66,000.

This year, employers applied for 97,800 nonagricultural visas in the first five minutes of the visa lottery, far more than ever before, crashing the Labor Department's website, the department said in a news release.

There is no such limit for workers on agricultural visas, and U.S. employers apply to bring in workers for up to 10 months per year on unskilled visas for agriculture, known as H-2A visas.

"Without them there would be no broccoli or lettuce," said Tony Tew, an area manager for Foothill Packing, a labor contractor in Yuma, Ariz. "They want to come here to work, and they work hard."

There is perhaps no better example of the confluence of border security and America's labor supply than Yuma, known as the "Winter Salad Bowl" of the United States, where lettuce and broccoli are grown a few miles from the border fence. Before the government increased its enforcement - with fencing, additional agents and harsher jail sentences - farmers there once relied on a steady stream of undocumented workers. But this harvest season, there are an estimated 3,800 H-2A workers in the city, almost all from Mexico, up from 2,858 in 2016, according to Yuma officials.

Some of them, like Humberto Ruiz Silva, live in northern Mexico and wake early each morning to cross the border into Arizona, flashing his visa to the U.S. immigration agent.

"The money is triple for me, and for some others more than 10 times what they would make in Mexico," Silva, 39, said.

In a small, two-story building in Durango, Mexico, one of the country's poorest states known for its sparsely inhabited mountain ranges, the office of CSI Visa Processing has six-foot stacks of visa applications in its hallways.

The company has boomed along with the H-2A gold rush, opening 10 offices across Mexico to keep up with the surge in employer demand for visas. In 2010, the company said, it recruited and processed visas for roughly 20,000 workers. Last year, it helped bring 35,000 workers across the border.

In rural Mexico, temporary visas have always been enormously coveted, and the surge in demand for legal workers is already remaking entire towns. Last year, the average hourly wage for an H-2A worker was $12.01 per hour, exponentially more than Mexico's $5-per-day minimum wage, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, which analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data.

Around 4,000 of the H-2A workers now come from El Mezquital, according to CSI, which recruits there. One of Mexico's poorest regions, it has been mostly forgotten by the federal government, where for years men have picked apples in local orchards for less than a dollar an hour. Guillermo Mathus, CSI's president, has created a pipeline between that region and the fields of Washington state.

When he returned to El Mezquital on a trip last month, residents stopped him everywhere he went to ask about the program.

"Are you hiring women yet?" a young woman asked.

"When can we submit our applications?" a young man asked.

Across El Mezquital, homes and trucks have been bought with American salaries. Many workers have begun saving for the children's university fees. On their refrigerators, some workers keep magnets from the places they've worked: harvesting hops in Idaho, cherries in Oregon, apples in Washington.

Before U.S. employers apply for temporary work visas, they must prove that they can't find Americans to do those jobs, posting advertisements in local newspapers, for example. They must arrange interviews for their workers at crowded American consulates in Mexico. They must pay the "prevailing wage," which is typically a few dollars per hour higher than minimum wage.

Temporary work visa programs are heavily regulated, requiring employers to provide standard housing for workers and compensation for those injured on the job, for example. Some farmers say the system is too difficult and expensive to navigate.

"Basically, we pretty much gave up," said Don Hartman, a vegetable farmer in Deming, New Mexico. Instead of hiring laborers with the H-2A program to replace undocumented workers, he now tries to make do with the legal workers he has used for years. "They need to make [the program] less cumbersome, less regulated, less political. Those people want to come and work and go back home and we need the help. Why can't they make a single program that will work for both of us?"

Illegal border crossings began to fall consistently around 2006. It wasn't solely a function of border enforcement. Mexico's economy had grown and its population growth had slowed, meaning more Mexicans could find jobs at home. Plus, the price of human smugglers had surged, and fewer people were interested in an illegal crossing that could cost $6,000 or more.

With the election of Trump, employers said they knew that finding undocumented workers would probably become even more difficult. One Washington state farmer said he watched as his entire pool of undocumented workers crossed the border into Canada after Trump's inauguration, fearing deportation. Another farmer, failing to find domestic workers in 2017, formed a partnership with a local prison, hiring detainees to work the fields as part of a voluntary work program.

Labor contractors and industry groups held conferences about how to solve the problem, explaining how existing visa programs could be used. A low unemployment rate in the United States added to employers' desperation, making it even harder to find American workers willing to do manual labor jobs.

"When I give presentations to agricultural groups, I hear the same thing: There just are not as many workers crossing the border, and the current administration has people running scared," said Jennifer Uranga, a labor contractor based in Idaho.

Uranga is one of a growing number of agents who help farmers and other businesses to hire legal workers in Mexico. Some of those workers end up in Yuma, a city of 95,000 nestled amid a desert landscape of mesquite trees and dotted with verdant fields of lettuce, cabbage and broccoli, as well as some citrus and date palm groves.

An enforcement push in Yuma, including the construction of a border fence in 2006, helped reduce illegal crossings substantially, according to the Department of Homeland Security, although experts say some of those migrants might have been diverted to other parts of the border. Still, Arizona employers needed undocumented workers. Officials say that the state's economy depends on the nearly 1 million foreign workers - around a third of whom are undocumented - who work in predominantly low-wage jobs like landscaping or farm work, according to a 2016 study by the New American Economy, a bipartisan organization of business leaders and mayors dedicated to immigration reform.

"We've been warned to get our labor force legal," said Steve Alameda, a Yuma-area farmer who earlier saw his labor crews short by as much as 25 percent, due in part to a drop in illegal immigration. "Everyone knows we have problems with undocumented workers. We try to avoid that, but everybody knows it's happening. Now, here's a program in place where you can get yourselves legal."

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This article was written by Kevin Sieff and Annie Gowen, reporters for The Washington Post.

Gowen reported from Yuma, Arizona.