HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – There's a barn in southeast Arkansas where legal Mexican guest workers sleep after a 16-hour day of harvesting tomatoes. Makeshift beds of planks on cinder blocks are set up in narrow rows, each with a small pillow and blanket.
If the foreign laborer is lucky, he won't be charged for the accommodations. If he's even luckier, he'll get paid twice a month instead of once.
Deacon Arnold Hernandez, a Texas-born farm worker who is now a Vincentian evangelist, tries to comment about the squalor suffered by these legal guest workers to farm owners and operators.
"In my experience, 98 percent of the employers do not comply with the rules of the existing guest-worker programs," said Deacon Hernandez, who has pastored farm workers and prisoners for the past 25 years with the Vincentians, formally called the Congregation of the Mission. "Laborers are afraid they won't get another visa if they complain."
Deacon Hernandez's observations come at a time when Congress is mulling the expansion of guest-worker programs. Members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are holding hearings across the country this month on competing immigration-reform measures.
If the Senate gets its way, those reforms will include granting 200,000 new guest-worker visas. Backed by President Bush, this proposal will certainly supply workers for the cherry harvest in Stockton, Calif. or the housing boom in Tucson, Ariz.
But it's got Deacon Hernandez wondering who will watch over the migrants heeding the call to work.
There are many ways foreign nationals can get visas to work in the United States. A half-dozen guest-worker programs are administered jointly by the Department of Labor, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the State Department.
All these programs require U.S. employers to submit evidence that they cannot find enough workers among their fellow citizens and must cast the net beyond the borders. There are two visa programs for what is called often called "unskilled labor" – the “H2-A” program for farm workers and the “H2-B” visa for other "seasonal" work in hotels, restaurants and landscaping.
Foreign workers who receive these visas are considered "nonimmigrants" who will work temporarily in the United States before returning home. The famous Bracero program, launched after World War II, brought more than 4 million Mexicans to U.S. fields and railroad lines.
Now, only 66,000 H2-B visas may be issued per year. The problem is, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has taken 80,000 petitions from employers each of the last two years.
"There is an increased demand every year," said Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley, whose agency was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) until 2003. "Employers request more visas than they actually need and we receive more petitions than we can approve."
Unlike with the H2-B program, there is no limit to the number of H2-A farm-worker visas that can be approved. Despite the fact that nearly a half-million laborers are needed in California's Central Valley alone every summer, it's surprising to find the State Department issues only about 30,000 H2-A visas.
Deacon Hernandez will tell you it's just easier for employers to hire undocumented workers or those with counterfeit papers. That's also the observation of Mirna Torres, an attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., a subsidiary of the U.S. bishop's conference.
"Most people use illegals rather than deal with the paperwork and waiting lists," said Torres, whose mother carried her across the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas, when she was a child. "What rancher is going to wait? They need the help now."
Both the president and Congress have vowed to reform the nation's immigration laws, but there is strong disagreement on how. Several bills have been introduced, but only two have emerged as real contenders.
The House passed a measure in December that is widely characterized as "enforcement only" -- aimed at securing the border. Commonly called the Sensenbrenner Bill after its author, Rep. JamesSensenbren-ner (R-Wis.), the bill would make felons out of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country as well as any American who employs them.
In May, the Senate passed S.2611, which includes the 200,000 new H2-C visas supported by President Bush as well as pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have worked in the country five years or more.
Republican leaders have criticized the Senate bill for encouraging illegal immigration. After all, they say, the more visas issued, the more opportunities there are for foreigners to overstay them.
The legislative process requires a conference committee with representatives from both houses to hammer out a final compromise. Instead, House Republican leaders requested a "long look" at the Senate version, including a string of public hearings.
Observers say House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) does not want to pursue an issue that splits the Republican Party during the midterm election season.
It's anybody's guess if any type of immigration reform will pass this year. That's not exactly what the U.S. bishops were hoping for.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the enforcement-only House bill and subsequently called the Senate bill "a good start."
Among the bishops' principles for just immigration reform is a guest-worker program that helps unify migrant families and provides a path to earn citizenship.
"The bishops are not opposed to border security or national sovereignty," Torres told Our Sunday Visitor. "But they want to balance the right to migration and the dignity of all human beings."
Catholic Charities USA has also supported S.2611 as a blueprint for immigration reform. Policy analysts would like to see workers able to petition for their own visas instead of needing an employer petition, as well as stronger protections against the kind of abuse witnessed by Deacon Hernandez.
"We would like to see a more level playing field for the workers," Candy Hill, vice president of social policy for Catholic Charities USA, told Our Sunday Visitor. "We support pathways to citizenship and programs that promote people coming to the United States."
Also high on the bishops' list of principles is addressing the poverty in Mexico and other countries that drives immigrants here in the first place.
"There's a lot of greed and corruption in the governments of Mexico and throughout Latin America," said Deacon Hernandez. "It breaks my heart to see human beings being treated like animals."
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Steven Saint writes from Colorado for Our Sunday Visitor .
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.