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Canada-Mexico effort viewed as model guestworker program

Oscar Reyes held his grandson as he spent the winter in Zacatecas, Mexico. He was away from his family for eight months working legally in a vineyard in British Columbia.

DOMINIC BRACCO II/WASHINGTON POST

Oscar Reyes held his grandson as he spent the winter in Zacatecas, Mexico. He was away from his family for eight months working legally in a vineyard in British Columbia.

OJOCALIENTE, Mexico — When Oscar Reyes heads north for seasonal work every spring, he no longer pays a smuggler to sneak him through the desert past the US Border Patrol.

He takes Air Canada.

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Reyes earns $10.25 an hour tending grapes and spraying pesticides at a vineyard in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, working eight months straight, seven days a week.

He was one of nearly 16,000 temporary workers from Mexico imported by Canada last year, in a government-to-government agreement that Mexican officials view as a potential model for an expanded guestworker program in the United States.

‘‘I come home loaded with money, and I don’t have to worry about anything,’’ said Reyes, who is back home for the winter with his family.

With President Obama’s reelection in November, and the overwhelming support he received from Hispanic voters, expectations are high that he will take up the nettlesome cause of US immigration reform in his second term.

If so, the most contentious issue may be the fate of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants living in the United States. But the debate is expected to include a proposed expansion of temporary worker programs to meet future US demand for legal, low-skilled labor.

‘I come home loaded with money, and I don’t have to worry about anything,’

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The United States gives out about 50,000 seasonal agricultural visas per year, nearly all of them to Mexican workers. But US farmers, immigrant advocate groups, labor unions, and Mexican officials say the current US program is a mess: inefficient, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to abuses by shady recruiters who charge workers thousands of dollars to find jobs and prepare visa applications.

The frustrations have left many looking north, to Canada, where government officials partner with their Mexican counterparts to recruit workers, expedite visas, guarantee health and safety standards, and coordinate travel arrangements and pay.

They also go to extraordinary lengths to make sure the workers go back to Mexico at the end of the season, raising criticisms that the arrangement treats them as little more than human machines.

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto said that he has told Obama that his administration is keen to ‘‘contribute’’ to a push for US immigration reform.

Such talk would have been too politically sensitive just six years ago, when the volume of Mexican migrants crossing the border was seen as out of control with more than a million Border Patrol arrests a year.

Last year, the Border Patrol made 340,000 arrests, the lowest level since 1971, the result of a tighter US job market, stiffer US enforcement, and widespread fears in Mexico of the kidnapping and drug gangs.

Overall, nearly as many Mexicans are now leaving the United States, whether voluntarily or as deportees, as the number who arrive, a trend that has raised alarms of labor shortages in industries such as food service and farming.

Farm laborers already tend to earn minimum wage or more, experts say, so employers would not necessarily have to pay higher wages to guestworkers than they currently pay illegal migrants.

Still, some US farmers and other employers fear that if the illegal workforce is granted legal status many of those workers will seek jobs in less arduous occupations.

Under the current US program for seasonal agriculture workers, there is no cap on the number of visas that can be issued. But many US employers prefer not to use it because the system is slow.

When the US recession hit and demand for seasonal workers fell, Zacatecas officials said they stopped working with the US Consulate.

Now they work exclusively with Canada and plan to triple the number of workers who go north, where they earn hourly wages of at least $10, as much as they would make in a day back home.The recruits are screened by Mexican officials.

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