Ag service assists ranchers with foreign laborWritten by Christy Hemken
Casper - Although there are many hundreds of services in the U.S. that facilitate foreign workers under the H-2A Alien Labor Certification process, Mountain Plains Agricultural Service of Casper is one of only a few that specialize in open-range livestock production.
Drawing from any country where there are qualified workers, Executive Director Oralia Mercado says the three main countries from which their workers come are Peru, Chile and Mexico. “We also bring in sheep shearers from New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom,” she adds.
For a worker to be qualified, he must have done the work being requested, such as herding sheep, and must provide a letter of reference showing that he does, indeed, have the experience.
Of the 1,587 workers that come into the U.S. under petitions approved for Mountain Plains Agricultural Service members, records show that 423 of them come to Wyoming. “Under the regulations, we’re known as an agent association, which acts as an agent for the employers. Our members have to join the association by application and the payment of a fee,” says Mercado. The service has 54 members in Wyoming.
“We work anywhere there’s a need for workers, and we have members in Minnesota, Alabama and Texas, as well as the western states,” she says.
“Most people that know about us have heard through word-of-mouth,” says Mercado. “Once we get one member in a state, it seems like we keep drawing in more. The workers hear of us the same way, and Mountain Plains is well known as an organization that brings workers to the U.S.”
Workers contact Mountain Plains by phone from their countries, and from there all the paperwork is done electronically. “We fax them instructions and they go to the consulate and we coordinate their visas and travel for them,” says Mercado.
Mountain Plains Agricultural Service was established in 1987 and Mercado joined the organization in 1988. “It’s changed drastically since then. When I started there were between 35 and 40 members and we were only working in sheepherding in Colorado and Wyoming.” The service was also only bringing in workers in from Mexico.
Now the association has close to 350 members from across the U.S. “We started in this office with one table, a borrowed typewriter and a borrowed filing cabinet,” she says of the building they share with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association.
“We’re not a recruitment agency,” stresses Mercado. “What we do is the legal paperwork with the U.S. Department of Labor. We submit a petition to the immigration office and then we submit an application to the Department of Labor, after which we submit it to the immigration office and coordinate with the consulates abroad to help the workers obtain visas and then we coordinate with the employer to help those workers come across the border.” Even with all the paperwork, Mercado says a worker is usually on his way to the U.S. in 90 days.
“The H-2A program is for temporary, non-immigrant workers, and the law states that they can stay in the country for less than a year. However, sheepherders are the only workers that can stay for 364 days and then be extended another year for up to three years consecutively,” says Mercado.
The Department of Labor establishes the wage rate through surveys, says Mercado. “They dictate what the wage is going to be for the specific line of work. Even though we’re criticized for the wages being paid to our livestock workers, it’s still at least 10 times more than they get in their own country for the same work, and a good number of them send the money back to their families. They can go home with $20,000 or $25,000 because they have no expenses in the U.S. because their room and board is provided.”
The workers with Mountain Plains are required to be out on the range, or at least away from ranch headquarters, more than 50 percent of their time, either living in a mobile unit or remote housing.
“We’ve never been able to find open-range livestock workers from within the U.S., and the need has increased with the energy boom,” comments Mercado, adding that the energy boom has also proved detrimental because of the increase in AWOL workers. “They find the energy industry to be a way they can get away from herding sheep on the range, and they get lost in the system and find other jobs that pay a lot more.”
Sometimes the workers get caught, but Mercado says that, for the most part, Immigration doesn’t seek them out because they’re too busy with illegal criminal immigrants. “If a worker goes AWOL and we can’t prove the worker exited the U.S., there is a fine of about $250 for each worker, but so far Immigration hasn’t been able to enforce it,” she continues.
“It used to be that we had to prove the worker went home, but there’s really no proof of that unless we’re down there holding their hand and helping them across the border because there’s never been a good system to determine when the worker really exits so there’s no real enforcement,” she says.
To keep workers from leaving, Mercado says the best way is to treat the worker well, and that many workers return to the same farm or ranch time after time. She says family men are more likely to be let into the U.S. because they have stronger ties back to their home country than a single man. “We have a lot of workers that come back year after year or stay for three years, then go home and come back for another three years.”
When addressing the challenge of a foreign language, Mercado says when she began with Mountain Plains she was surprised at how many ranchers could already speak Spanish. “And if they don’t they can usually get by with sign language or find somebody to help, and the worker learns a little English and the rancher learns a little Spanish and pretty soon they’re communicating.”
Mercado says she expects to see some legislative changes in the near future that will affect the H-2A program. “We’ve already seen three or four bills introduced to Congress that will affect the H-2A program and will definitely affect Mountain Plains. They’re trying to tailor the H-2A program for the vegetable and fruit producers, and the livestock producers are a very small part so nobody has thought about protection of those groups.”
When the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986, Mercado says then-U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) arranged an agreement between Immigration and Congress that sheepherders could go home after three years but they didn’t have to stay for the six months that other workers had to. “That’s been in force since then as an agreement, not a law, and that’s the way the program’s been administered to this point,” she says.
“Recently we’ve heard there’s going to be a regulatory change that requires all workers to stay home for three months, and I don’t know if we can combat that and if the ranchers are interested in combating that,” says Mercado.
“We’d like to get more deeply involved in lobbying with the new immigration law that would include the H-2A program, because that has prompted me to be more politically involved in some of the issues,” she says. “We’ve always fought administrative battles on how they administer the rules, but now it’s gotten to the point where there needs to be some legislative action.”
Although those in the dairy industry have stayed on top of the subject and are working to be included in the H-2A program – a place where they have historically not been allowed because their occupation is considered permanent – Mercado says there is nobody out there protecting the sheep and cattle producers in the realm of the H-2A program.
“They need to start getting involved. We can’t fight the battles for them because we’re just the administrators of the program and we’re not the users,” she states. “If the ranchers don’t start getting politically involved they’re going to lose a lot of the program that’s in place right now.
“The dairy farmers across the country have organized and have been lobbying for several years now because they want to be included. I think the sheep and cattle producers have always been able to use the program and they’ve become complacent, thinking everything will stay the same forever, but it won’t.”
“I think as soon as we have a new administration something’s going to change, and I think sheep and cattle producers need to be ready with something,” says Mercado, who planned to bring her concerns to the late January American Sheep Industry Annual Convention in Las Vegas, Nev.
After the convention she hopes to organize a meeting of ranchers from across the West, especially sheep producers, to see if they want to do something politically as a collective group. “That’s the only way it’s going to work, and it’s got to include more than one state,” she says.