Texas pipeline sends Shore workers Laborers supplied to Maryland nursery raided by the INS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

McALLEN, Texas -- Ezequiel Alvarez has traveled four times from this city near the Mexican border to Maryland's Eastern Shore and he still doesn't remember where he got off the bus.

All he knows is that an Angelica Nurseries van picked him up along with about 15 others at a bus station. And that a labor contractor named Jose A. Bravo bought him the bus ticket.

"I hope God never takes him away because he helps so many people," Alvarez, 49, says as he sits in the office of Bravo Labor Agency in this Texas city of 100,000 seven miles from the Rio Grande.

Every February for the past five years or so, Bravo has sent 100 people like Alvarez to work at the Kennedyville nursery. His agency is a small part of a pipeline that channels thousands of workers from South Texas and Mexico to seasonal jobs across the United States.

Angelica pays Bravo $250 for every worker it supplies. From that, Bravo covers the worker's transportation and provides each $50 in pocket money for the trip.

Federal immigration agents raided the 240-employee nursery last week, arresting 86 suspected illegal immigrants. Seventy -- all believed to be Mexican citizens -- were deported Friday.

Bravo says his business and others like it deal only with legal workers. He says he checks their work papers, stressing that if workers don't arrive at work sites, he loses money.

His workers, from both sides of the border, are willing to go anywhere to earn cash, part of a continual flow northward of people from McAllen and communities along the Mexican border in the southernmost tip of Texas. An estimated 100,000 workers a year leave their homes here looking for work, escaping the McAllen area's double-digit unemployment rate.

They go for months at a time to work in states from Louisiana to Michigan to Maine at sites ranging from cotton farms and beef packing plants to tobacco and sugar cane fields.

"This is one of the largest labor pools for agricultural workers in the country," said Marinda van Dalen, an attorney with Texas Rural Legal Aid, a pro-bono agency in Weslaco, Texas, that assists farmworkers.

Van Dalen said there are scores of people involved in recruiting workers in the Rio Grande valley.

After 50 years on the job, Bravo, 81, is one of the most established contractors in McAllen.

"I am not doing a service for the people. I am doing it for myself," said Bravo, sitting in a worn, leather chair wearing a crisp, white cowboy hat.

"But I do a lot of favors for a lot of people. There are people who can give their children food because of me."

About 15 men, some with suitcases, sat in front of Bravo's large office yesterday, giving the room the feel of a bus depot. A television set blared a Mexican soap opera as Bravo's four employees -- including his son and his grandson -- ran in and out carrying yellow note pads and answering the office's three telephone lines in Spanish and English.

Alvarez, who said he liked Angelica's comfortable living facilities but that he wanted to earn a higher wage, has been waiting three days to find out where his next stop will be. He didn't care what state it would be in.

"It all depends on the ring of the phone. How many they want and where they want them to go," said Alvarez, who spends only two months a year in his home city of Guanajuato, Mexico. He has documents allowing him to live in the United States, obtained through an employer in the 1970s, but he prefers to live with his family in Mexico where the cost of living is less.

How the business works

Bravo's business works this way:

He has about 20 companies that call periodically, asking for a certain number of workers for anywhere from two days to several months. The companies send Bravo sample contracts specifying the amount to be paid each worker and detailing living arrangements.

In Angelica's case, a personnel manager comes to Bravo's office to interview prospective workers. No one from the company would comment yesterday.

Bravo announces job openings through radio ads on both sides of the border. Potential workers -- single men and sometimes whole families -- come into the Bravo office, and if they decide to take one of the openings, they sign a contract directly with the hiring company, Bravo said.

Workers must present a green card or a work permit, a Social Security card and sometimes another form of identification in order to be referred, Bravo said.

It is Bravo's responsibility to get workers to the job site -- usually by Greyhound bus. If workers don't show up, or quit soon after arriving, Bravo must provide another worker free of charge.

On Saturday, there was a call from a farmer in Louisiana.

"I need six men," a man with a Southern twang told Bravo. He needed workers to finish a sweet-potato harvest. They will be paid $5 an hour and housing will be provided, he told Bravo. The work will last two months.

"Oh, that's good," Bravo said. "We have lots of people who are very experienced in sweet potatoes."

Business risks

Bravo's business doesn't come without risks.

Many of his workers are not U.S. citizens but have documents that allow them to live and work in the United States. About 60 percent of Bravo's workers live in Mexico but -- like Alvarez -- have permanent-resident cards, called green cards, Bravo said.

Many of them obtained their green cards in the mid-1980s when the federal government granted illegal immigrants the chance to apply for legal residency under an amnesty program. About 3 million immigrants took advantage of the program, and some have returned to Mexico to live, but maintain U.S. addresses to keep their papers valid.

"Plus many people still have their families there," said Alcario Samudio, a paralegal with Legal Aid.

Samudio, often a critic of Bravo, said Bravo probably pays close attention to the worker's papers because his interests are at stake. "He just cares about his money," Samudio said.

After last week's raid, Angelica's owner, LeVerne Kohl, suggested that some of the suspected illegal immigrants might have come from Bravo, although he said he was reserving judgment until he saw a list of those deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Immigration officials in Baltimore and Texas could not be reached for comment during the weekend.

Bravo -- who did not know about the raid until a reporter questioned him -- denied that any of his workers were illegal.

He said immigration officials have not called him about the raid.

"I think I am smart enough to check their [workers'] documents," Bravo said. "I give them $50 for expenses. I pay for their bus ticket. I have to be very sure they are legal because if they are taken off at the [Border Patrol] checkpoint, I lose the money."

Problems arise

Problems often arise, however, when promises made by recruiters or their clients are not kept. For example, one recruiter's client was sued by Legal Aid after more people were recruited to work there than were actually needed, causing some to lose a chance for work, Samudio said. The suit was settled in 1995, Samudio and Legal Aid lawyers said, although they could not recall the terms of the settlement.

Some Legal Aid officials say recruiters sometimes misrepresent the terms of the contracts to the workers. However, the Legal Aid workers concede that it is difficult to tell whether recruiters or their clients are at fault.

As Alvarez prepared for his next job at a saw mill in Tennessee, he spoke about how Bravo has been finding him work for nine years.

Alvarez said he enjoyed the time he spent in Maryland over the past four years, even if he never felt he earned enough to try the area's delicacy, crab. Most workers start at $4.50 an hour; those with several years experience at the nursery earn as much $8 an hour.

"The most beautiful part of Maryland is the geese. The fields were full of them," Alvarez said, breaking into a smile as he is asked about the similarities between himself and the migrant bird.

"They come and go every year."

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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