Guest workers: They're here legally to do what we won't

HURON On at least one shelf of the Huron Public Library sit books written entirely in Spanish.
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

HURON

On at least one shelf of the Huron Public Library sit books written entirely in Spanish.

This is where Juan Patino, 41, often heads in his free time for cheap entertainment.

Patino tries to save every dime he can to send home to his family in Mexico. He estimates that as much as 85 percent of his paycheck is sent south -- meaning he tries to keep luxuries to a minimum.

Patino has made a tremendous sacrifice for his "familia" -- Spanish for family.

When his son, Pablo, was born six years ago, Patino didn't have much time to get to know him.

Not long after he took his wife, Yolanda Sanchez, and Pablo home from the hospital after a risky pregnancy, he had to leave fast.

Patino had to catch a bus north -- a ride that comes only once a year.

To support his wife and two children, Patino travels 1,800 miles from his home in Apaseo el Alto, Mexico, to the Huron-Berlin Heights area, where he spends nine months working outdoors, taking care of plants.

Patino is one of about 250 migrant workers who are legally employed by Willoway Nurseries Inc., a wholesale plant nursery with two main farms in Avon and Huron.

After about 10 years on the job, one might expect that Patino has grown fully accustomed to the routine of leaving his loved ones behind for long stretches of time.

He hasn't.

"It's too tough. ... Every time I come here, it's more difficult because they're growing up, and I'm not (there to see it)," he said.

Not that Patino doesn't appreciate the work opportunity.

Starting wage at Willoway Nurseries is $9.93 an hour for general nursery workers. Senior crew leaders, like Patino, can make up to $11.20 an hour.

That is far higher than the standard wages found throughout much of the impoverished countryside of Mexico, said Emily Jalkanen, administrative assistant with Willoway Nurseries.

"They'd probably make that in one day there, if they even had a job," she said.

The work arrangement is mutually beneficial. Without Willoway, Patino would still be working at a shopping center making much less than he does. Without the guest-worker program, Willoway would not have been able to grow into one of the larger nursery wholesalers in the Midwest.

"We could not get a stable workforce locally and reliably without the migrants," said Cathy Kowalczyk, vice president of Willoway Nurseries.

Willoway Nurseries joined the federal H-2A agricultural guest-worker program a little more than 10 years ago out of desperation. The local pool of laborers in the area was hopelessly shallow. The company relied heavily on high school students to do many of the nursery jobs. But being students -- with classes and homework -- their schedules were only so flexible.

"We cannot get 250 local, domestic workers to do these jobs. One of the rules of the program is that we have to attempt to hire local workers for these jobs every year. Anyone who comes in from, say they live in Sandusky, and they want the same job that an H-2A worker has, they have first rights to that job," Jalkanen said.

Despite this requirement, the number of local applicants is inadequate to run the operation.

Misconceptions

All too often, when people see someone of Hispanic descent who speaks little-to-no English, they immediately assume that person is an illegal alien, Jalkanen said. Willoway's migrant labor force is completely legal, and represents only a fraction of the migrant laborers working in the U.S.

"A lot of people don't even know (this program) exists. When they see a Mexican, they think, 'Oh, they've got to be an illegal.' But there are programs like this out there, where anyone can come up here -- they don't have to be from Mexico, they can be from anywhere -- on a work visa," Jalkanen said. "They are on a contract for 10 months. When they apply for this job, they get a work visa, and their visa says they are only allowed to work at Willoway Nurseries, and it says their contract date: March 1 to Dec. 1."

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said in a prepared statement that agricultural employers hired about 75,000 H-2A workers last year. Department of Labor officials have said the H-2A program, created in 1986, should be expanded to meet the demands of the agricultural sector, so domestic food production isn't shipped overseas.

Even though the U.S. is contentiously divided about the question of immigration, the H-2A program is entirely legitimate and has strong proponents from both sides of the political aisle. Both sides seem to agree that the program is a reasonable solution to a labor shortage.

Other criticism of migrant workers often is the result of preconceived notions, said Dave Geary, manager at the Huron farm.

"We love having the guys here. We've run into some people who have a stigma about these guys. But they're great people, hard working and just like anyone else. They have families and people they care about," Geary said. "They are our friends, and we consider a lot of them family."

The work

Even though the pay at Willoway is well above minimum-wage levels, nursery workers certainly earn their keep.

They work outside in all conditions -- sleet, snow or freezing rain -- because there is never a time when the plants don't need attention, Geary said.

Geary said finding workers able to rise to the physical challenges of farming, trimming, weeding and potting is tough considering today's societal values. Even smaller communities increasingly produce fewer and fewer farm-minded individuals.

"The biggest thing for us is they are stable workers, and we get a type of person who really understands the work. They are coming from the farming backgrounds," Geary said. "You really have to be used to working in the elements. That's the difficult part of it."

The work is tough, but so is adapting to American culture. Learning the language and customs is not something that occurs overnight.

Even after 10 years of exposure and many lunch-time coaching sessions, Patino still stumbles while speaking in English.

The English classes were offered during the summer by retired teachers in the area.

"A lot of them do take English classes because they've learned that to succeed here in an English-speaking community, you've got to learn the language," Jalkanen said.

Still, Patino's pretty much gotten the hang of American life. And the community has helped in other ways, too: A bus from St. Mary Catholic Church in Vermilion swings by the housing complex each Sunday to take workers to church, company officials said. They also donate couches and furniture to workers to make their lives a little more comfortable.

Just guests?

Patino sometimes entertains the thought of trying to acquire a green card. He considers Mexico home, but he yearns for a day when his major form of contact with his wife and kids won't be three cell phone conversations each week.

But even after years of hop-scotching between Mexico and Ohio, it is doubtful that he stands much of a chance of receiving citizenship, Geary said.

"I don't think this is much of a stepping-stone program," Geary said.

Wilma Trujillo, 44, supervisor of the nursery's shipping department, can attest to the difficulty involved in becoming an American.

Originally from Florencia, Columbia, she was accepted to the University of Florida on a student visa. After graduating, she then received her master's in agronomy before transferring to The Ohio State University, where she received her doctorate in soil science.

She then became employed at Willoway, where she has worked more than seven years.

A foreign citizen's best chance to become a U.S. citizen is having a family member with a green card or attending school here, Geary said.

Considering Trujillo was a model student and Willoway sponsored her bid for citizenship, she seemed a shoo-in.

Even so, it took more than four-and-a-half years to get her green card. One legal misstep along the way, and her application would likely have been rejected, Trujillo said.

According to a New York Times investigation, at least 85,000 naturalization applications are turned down each year. Last year, almost 90,000 were denied -- 12 percent of those presented.