Until five years ago, Rigoberto Ochoa of Charapan, Mexico, sneaked into California to work, picking peaches, prunes and grapes as an illegal migrant.
But since 2002, he's been coming across the border each year by bus, carrying an H2B visa for temporary nonagricultural workers. As an employee of Amplex wholesale nursery off Ulmerton Road, the 39-year-old makes twice the $4.25 an hour he was paid as an undocumented worker.
The three-day bus trip that he takes from Mexico each February and then back each December is tedious, but it's safe and inexpensive compared with what he went through as an illegal.
Ochoa is one of 30 workers with H2B visas working for Amplex, which also has a 100-acre nursery in Plant City. Co-owner Tami McKnight has been using the program - and the same 30 workers - since 2002.
"If we didn't have them, I don't know where we'd be,'' she said.
Amplex, with a total work force of about 100, nearly learned what life without migrant workers would be like last year. The H2B program's cap of 66,000 visas was reached long before McKnight's annual request reached the U.S. Department of Labor in October 2004. Her workers, who are considered temporary and must return to Mexico each year, were stuck in their village in Michoacan for months while trade associations for landscapers, nurseries and hotels lobbied lawmakers for help.
In March 2005, Congress provided some relief by exempting returning visa-holders from the program's cap. Amplex's crew finally returned in mid May, almost four months after their usual February start date.
McKnight, who fielded increasingly desperate phone calls from Charapan as her workers' savings ran out during the delay, said she became desperate as well.
"If someone showed up here, I put them to work,'' she said. "I asked for their I-9s (identification papers). But who knows if they were authentic?' "
McKnight, who has owned Amplex with partner George Kostilnik since 1985, first applied to the visa program five years ago to avoid just that kind of paranoia. "It got to where it was keeping me up at night,'' she said.
In October each year she applies to the Labor Department for 30 H2B slots, providing descriptions of the work and benefits. (Amplex offers health insurance to its workers as well as a 20 percent contribution to an employee Christmas Club.)
The government then sets minimum pay ($6.99 an hour, though Amplex starts workers at $8.50). McKnight is also required to place ads for her job openings with state employment offices and in major local newspapers for two consecutive weeks, including Sundays.
"I always offer the job to whoever applies,'' she said. "But they never show up. Never.''
Her partner, Kostilnik, said friends often ask to put their high school or college-aged sons to work at the nursery for the summer. But after a few days of loading and unloading trees on trucks and weeding and watering plants, the students are gone. "They never last,'' Kostilnik said.
Only after proving that Amplex can't fill its openings locally does McKnight receive approval for the visas. The whole process, which must be repeated annually, takes about four months and costs Amplex about $4,000 in fees to the U.S. government, $1,000 to the Mexican government and $3,000 to an expediter in Texas. Said McKnight of the program's cost: "It's worth every penny.''
But with Amplex's business growing - it hit a record $15.5-million in sales last year - McKnight hopes to add another 20 guest workers next year. Under current program limits, it's unlikely those workers would be approved.
Her recommendations to Congress: Raise the cap on H2B visas. Allow the workers to stay year-round and drop the pretense that they are temporary. And let long-term visa-holders use the program as a path toward permanent residency.
McKnight knows demand for H2B workers exists because Amplex's customers, which include landscapers, retailers and garden centers, constantly ask her about the program.
"They all want to know how we got our workers legal,'' she said.
Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.