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Widening the Field of Workers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stan Eury deals in Mexicans.

He’s not apologizing for the vast trade he runs out of an ersatz hacienda in the middle of North Carolina’s tobacco fields. He doesn’t need to. Courtesy of an obscure wrinkle in U.S. immigration law, the 16,000 Mexican workers he recruits to work on U.S. farms each year don’t have to cross the border illegally in the dead of night.

They ride over in chartered buses. Legally, with stamps on their passports to prove it.

Some end up mistreated by recruiters, who pluck them out of their hometowns to work for growers who pay Eury for the service. And once here, they work at stoop labor no one else wants to do. But most go back to Mexico with their pockets stuffed with far more money than they could make at home.

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Eury says that makes him a farm worker advocate. The civil rights lawyers trying to check his sprawling business empire might disagree.

One thing is certain: Stan Eury has parlayed a federal program that permits hiring foreign workers on temporary visas for jobs on U.S. farms into a personal gold mine. The trade has made him the largest farm labor contractor in the country--and, not coincidentally, a multimillionaire.

Today, Eury’s North Carolina Growers Assn. and two other businesses he runs out of his 6,000-square-foot hacienda count more than 1,100 growers as clients. Of the 30,000 foreign farm workers brought into the United States legally this year, more than half entered under Eury’s auspices. In North Carolina, which brings in more workers through the program than any other state, every one of 10,000 this year is working for Eury.

The program is little used in California, where illegal workers are as plentiful as strawberries in spring. But that may soon change. A powerful coalition of agriculture industry lobbyists, including Eury as well as the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Growers Assn., is pushing federal legislation that would expand the visa program on which Eury’s business relies. If they succeed, tens of thousands of additional foreign laborers could work in the United States on temporary visas.

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The expanded program also could transform the immigration debate by driving down the numbers of the 600,000 to 900,000 Mexicans who, by Labor Department estimates, cross the border illegally each year.

“I have long seen this as a win, win, win,” said Eury, tapping long fingers on a massive, carved Mexican table in his office, a fountain burbling in the background and his latest crop of workers sweltering outside.

“It’s a win for the growers because they get a reliable work force, a win for the workers because they get good jobs and a win for the American public because it helps cure our illegal alien problem.”

And for Stan Eury? “Well, I get a job out of it,” Eury said. “So I guess that’s another win.”

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California growers are fighting particularly hard to expand the temporary worker program, called H-2A after the section of the 1952 law that created it, even though they have rarely used it. For decades, the state’s growers preferred to draw on the vast number of illegal immigrant workers, but agricultural industry leaders say that a crackdown at the border and a tight labor market have dried up the supply.

“We see an expanded H-2A program as a way to lessen the problems farmers are having getting their crops harvested on time,” said Bob Krauter, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “We have to do something. These are perishable commodities.”

Worker Advocates Oppose Program

Unlike Eury, farm worker advocates and civil rights lawyers do not believe everybody wins with the federal program. They are fighting the proposed expansion, just as they have fought Eury for years with lawsuits charging that growers who got their workers from him failed to provide such basics as water, adequate housing and protection from dangerous pesticide residue. Eury has quietly paid settlements in each of the suits, without admitting guilt.

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The Mexican government has expressed concern for several years about treatment of the workers. But senior Mexican officials say that they hesitate to complain because many more Mexicans who work in the U.S. illegally are treated considerably worse.

Both Mexican and American officials say they recognize that an expanded, streamlined form of the program has the potential to help close the gap between the two governments over immigration.

“The public policy issue is whether we would rather have a legal or an illegal agricultural work force and which group is most vulnerable to the most extreme kinds of abuse and exploitation in the workplace,” said John Fraser, deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division.

The H-2A program permits American farmers to hire foreign workers if they can prove that no domestic workers want the jobs. It is an offspring of the “bracero” program, which brought tens of thousands of Mexican laborers into the United States legally to ease labor shortages during World War II.

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The bracero program became infamous for exploiting farm workers. Domestic laborers complained that it created competition from low-paid foreigners. The opposition, led by the nascent United Farm Workers movement, helped scuttle the program in 1964.

The H-2A program allows growers to seek foreign workers only after they have tried and failed to find Americans to work their fields. Foreign workers pay their own way from Mexico to the U.S., but the farmers who employ them are required to reimburse them a reasonable sum for the fare--and to pay their way back if they stay for the full length of their contracts.

The growers must provide workers with housing that meets minimum standards and accord them the same health and safety protections American workers get. Growers must pay a wage that the government deems about equal to what domestic workers would earn.

But as with the bracero program, enforcement of H-2A’s safeguards has became lax. Workers, who regard the worst the United States has to offer as better than a jobless life at home, are reluctant to complain about violations or abuse.

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“The fundamental problem underlying the program is the degree of control that the employer has over the workers, which is greater even than over undocumented workers,” said Mary Lee Hall, an attorney at the federally funded Legal Services of North Carolina.

“If you are undocumented and you don’t like your job, you can walk away. These workers are coming out of economic necessity and place a premium on returning [to the United States] and being able to bring back that money again.”

The U.S. officials who oversee the program say that it is rife with problems. “We see way too many violations, way too many instances of farm workers not being afforded minimally decent standards and wages in the workplace,” the Labor Department’s Fraser said.

For decades the program was used almost exclusively in Florida, where sugar cane growers recruited Jamaicans for the excruciating job of cutting cane, and in the Northeast, where apple growers had trouble finding help. In the 1980s, a series of lawsuits filed against sugar cane growers by farm worker advocates contended that the Jamaican workers were subjected to extraordinarily harsh conditions.

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Partly in response to the pressure, the growers began to mechanize the process of cutting cane and they stopped looking to Jamaica for their work force. The few who persisted in bringing in H-2A workers were suddenly subjected to considerably more government scrutiny. Most found that navigating the growing maze of regulations did not pay.

That is when Eury got the idea that playing the middleman in the temporary visa program could make him a fortune.

Using Knowledge of Rules to His Advantage

A wiry man who grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country, Eury had been a state employee for years, representing farmers’ interests at the North Carolina Employment Security Commission.

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But in 1989, he and a friend were arrested and charged with growing marijuana for sale. Eury paid a fine and did community service. And he was fired.

At the time, a series of raids by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service at farms around the state had made North Carolina growers nervous about hiring illegal immigrants. And they found that domestic workers were not only in short supply but also had a tendency to quit in mid-season to work for someone who paid more.

Eury, looking for work himself, saw his chance. Although he spoke no Spanish and had never farmed an acre, he knew the convoluted H-2A regulations inside out. He convinced 40 growers to pay him $500 per worker to recruit 300 Mexicans under the H-2A program.

Eury’s business has grown explosively. Several years ago, in a field within view of his expansive home and gardens, he built the warehouse and the hacienda-style offices where the operation is now based. He hired Spanish-speaking staff to communicate with the workers. He began to contribute extensively to local political campaigns and the Republican National Committee and he built bridges to growers’ associations with lobbyists in Washington.

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Growers love Eury’s business because they get workers when they want them, for as long as they want them, without the hassles of having to recruit them themselves. And they do not have to worry that the INS will come knocking on their door.

‘They’re Standing Out There Waiting for Me’

“In this business, when you’re priming tobacco, you need to know your workers are gonna be there tomorrow. With local help, you just don’t know,” said Chester Pilson, who farms tobacco and sweet potatoes on 59 acres in Cameron, N.C.

“These guys are here. They’re in my camp. I get ready to go to work in the morning, they’re standing out there waiting for me. They’re waiting to go. They want to work. That’s the great difference.”

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Eury remains anonymous to the workers, who refer to his operation only as “La Asociacion.” Among themselves, they exchange rumors of a “blacklist” of workers who complain, workers who are not invited back. Few speak out publicly.

Lorenzo Uscanga Campos, from a small town in the Mexican state of Veracruz, was recruited to work for Eury by a man who charged them about $300 for the privilege.

He paid another several hundred dollars for his transportation to North Carolina. He took the job because the $6.54 an hour it pays is far more than he could make at home.

He was promised travel money back home, although he has yet to receive it, and he had to borrow the $300 from a loan shark who charged 20% interest. Most of what he has earned so far has gone toward paying back the loan.

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Meanwhile, he is lonely living with 30 other men in a rundown house with holes in the wooden walls. The work in the tobacco fields is long and hard. The pungent leaves sting his skin and sometimes the pesticide fumes and the heat make him woozy.

Nevertheless, Uscanga has no doubts about his decision to come.

“It’s basic economics,” he said. “They told me how hard the work would be. I knew that I’d be far away from my family and living with a lot of other men. But we are soldiers. We are here to complete a mission. I am fighting for my family.”

If Eury gets his way, it will soon get easier for growers to hire workers like Uscanga. The draft of legislation that growers’ lobbyists are circulating would replace the housing requirement with a voucher system. It would ease the requirement that growers first seek domestic workers for the jobs.

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No such legislation has been formally introduced in Congress this year, although the Senate passed similar legislation last year. It was defeated in the House.

Regardless of the legislative outcome, Eury’s business shows no signs of slowing.

Early one recent Friday morning, 200 Mexicans, exhausted and bedraggled from three days on buses from deep in Mexico, were ushered inside the warehouse in Vass by Eury’s men. In front of them stood the imitation stucco hacienda.

On a balcony hung with a Mexican tapestry emerged one of Eury’s supervisors, looking like a Mexican landowner of centuries ago. The workers gazed up at him.

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“Bienvenidos a Carolina del Norte,” he boomed.

Inside, Eury smiled and gestured at what he had built.

“It’s really the feeling of old Mexico, don’t you think?” he said.

“I just wanted to make the workers feel at home.”

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