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Part 2: Canadian migrant worker program

This time of year, thousands of men from Mexico will arrive on Canadian farms to work. They'll be paid a guaranteed wage, given free housing, receive health care benefits, and they'll go home when the season ends.

Canada's guest worker program has been operating successfully for more than 30 years. The United States has a similar program, but few companies choose to use it. Reporter Joanne Faryon concludes our two-part series.

Under a grove of trees, in a canyon that winds it's way from the suburbs of Rancho Penasquitos to Carmel Valley, is a religious shrine made of stucco and teal colored tiles. There are plastic flowers and candles. A crucifix hangs from one of the trees.

First the volunteers arrive with food, an accupunturist comes. He will treat men who are injured, more volunteers, some with a political message and then finally, the men. They are undocumented or illegal workers who live in this canyon. They make their homes from plywood boards, covered by plastic tarps.

Most work for local agricultural or landscape companies. Many harvest the tomatoes that grow in surrounding fields. They are here to attend a Christian service delivered by a local priest and volunteers.

Christoria Welland, a San Diego phsycologist is one of the volunteers. She hands out bibles and phone cards today.

Welland has known many of these men for years, invited them to her home and taken them to dinner.

It was only recently she learned there was an immigration program in the U.S. that allowed farmers to legally hire temporary workers. A program that is suppose to provide these men with housing and transportation.

The United States and Canada have similar temporary farm workers programs. They are designed to help fill labour shortages during the growing season. Both programs require employers to follow domestic labor laws. In Canada, the program is highly regulated and applauded by Mexican officials.

But under the Canadian program, farmers provide return airfare tickets to workers, and inspected housing, free of charge.

In the U.S., the program, known as H2A, is rarely used or enforced.

Wayne Corneilus is director of the Center for Comparitive Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He says employers have little incentive to use the legal program when there are thousands of cheaper undocumented workers at their doorstep.

Corneilus: "In the united states the H2A program is perceived rather negatively by most agricultural employers to the point where its really only used by apple growers and few other agricultural industries on the east coast of the U.S. Most agricultural growers in the southwest have never used the program.

California employs about one million farm workers. About half are undocumented. Less than 2,000 are H2A workers.

Dorothy Johnson is a lawyer with California Rural Legal Assistance. Her office attempts to help workers who aren't being treated fairly by employers.

Johnson: "I've been in this office for about five-and-a-half years and virtually every day a worker comes into my office because they haven't been paid, because they haven't been paid overtime, because they have been paid with a check that has bounced.

Both critics on the left and right are reluctant to use Canada's seasonal worker program as a model for the United States guest workers program. Labor and immigrant advocacy groups want nothing less than permanent employment or citizenship for migrant workers. Those on the either side of the debate want to limit the flow of migration altogether.

Others argue Canada's program is easier to regulate because of the smaller population -- which is about the same as the population of California.

Migrant workers also have more incentive to return to their native land, given the distance from their families and Canada's cold winters.

After the mass, Christauria Welland visits with some of them men near their homes in the canyon. One man shows how he's dug a trench around his tarp, so the rain wouldn't get in.

The man, who looks somewhere in 40's, has lived this way for ten years so his wife and children would have a better life in Mexico.

Welland: "This guy sleeping night after night without his wife, without seeing his children, by himself, alone, having to eat from a lunch truck, what kind f life is that. I mean sure he'd rather be home. They come here because it's a necessity not because they want to be living in these conditions.

Welland considers herself neither advocate nor politician. To her, a guest worker program should offer something much more basic than a green card, permanent residency or citizenship. It should be the difference between these men sleeping on a board in a canyon and sleeping in a bed with a roof overhead.

For KPBS I'm Joanne Faryon.

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