AUTRYVILLE, N.C. — Mario Olmos Martinez grew up in Mexico tagging along with his dad to electrical jobs, learning a trade even as the work grew scarce. Sometimes his father could buy nothing but beans for the family; a day's worth of milk cost eight precious pesos they rarely had.
Then this year, the 20-year-old Martinez traveled a thousand miles to join his papa on a new job, this one among the vast sandhills of southeastern North Carolina, tending fields of strawberries, squash and melons.
Martinez climbs into his bunk close to midnight some nights, occasionally clutching a photograph of his own young family: a wife named Miriam and a year-old boy named Irving, standing by the car he sold for $600 to get up here. He hears rumors about the immigration clash in Washington and wonders what it could mean.
He and his father, Salvador Olmos Riano, 53, are different from the 12 million undocumented immigrants hiding in the United States. They have papers.
The men could have sneaked into the country by way of the Arizona desert. Instead, they followed the rules, coming legally through an agricultural guest-worker program that - among the dozens of provisions being debated in the Senate's immigration proposal - seems to be one of the few things many Washington politicians can agree on.
The agriculture provisions have been subject to intense lobbying by farmers and agribusiness.
But the tens of thousands of workers who are affected, such as Riano and his son, so far have had little say on the measure. Living on the same farms where they work and toiling days that often stretch from dawn to dusk, many know only sketchy details about the debate that's swirling around them.
The bill would expand the federal program, known as H-2A, that funnels foreign workers into American fields each growing season. It would cut bureaucratic red tape for farmers.
It also would slash wages for Martinez, Riano and thousands of other legal farm workers. Some farmers and their advocates say the bill wouldn't cut wages enough.
It would mean a 16 percent pay drop for workers in North Carolina, changing a wage formula and rolling back pay from the current guaranteed $9.02 an hour to 2003 levels of $7.57 an hour.
The measure also could boost longtime workers' chances of earning permanent status and green cards.
This is what has Martinez and Riano thinking. If they had visas, maybe they could find work closer to the border, where they could be nearer to their families. They could find jobs as electricians, making $15 an hour, twice as much as the proposed wage for farm workers under the bill.
"I'm a quick learner," Riano said.
For now, the wages go home. Each of them tries to send home $300 a week. Martinez calls his young wife, asks whether the wired money has arrived, then asks after his son, who's had bronchitis since January. He has hospital bills and medicine to pay for.
Martinez and Riano think their current wages are fair. Asked about the proposed cut, they pause and then nod that yes, that would be fair, too.
Of the father-and-son team at Jackson Farming Co. in Autryville, Riano came first, joining a friend last year in signing up.
He had to travel hours to the interview in Mexico, then return to a designated place at a set time to get his papers and be ferried across the border and into North Carolina to work for 10 months.
This year, Riano brought his son, thin as a weed and wearing a boyish grin.
The farm's owner, Brent Jackson, jokes that Martinez works more quickly when he's in sight of his father.
"I'm happy we're working together," Riano said, smiling. "It's possible for us to be separate, but close by."
But they remain aware of their wives, Riano's other son and Martinez's child back in Mexico.
"I miss them," Martinez said. "I feel alone."
Jackson used to hire illegal workers. But they were unreliable; as soon as someone stopped by offering pennies more an hour, they were gone.
So Jackson joined the H-2A program, setting up meetings in Mexico and building a labor camp. This year he added new barracks, showers and a group kitchen.
Although the workers are guaranteed $9.02 an hour, Jackson said, he spends $13 to $15 an hour when he adds in travel costs, housing costs and workers' compensation insurance.
By law, he must advertise for American workers first before looking across the border. In past years he's had some Americans show up to work. One fellow lasted six weeks in the fields; none has ever stayed a season.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farm workers - especially those who are illegal - are unlikely to have health insurance, and they continue to face unfair labor practices, including hazardous work conditions and nonpayment of wages.
For now the H-2A program is little used; only 72,000 of the nation's estimated 9 million farm workers were temporary guest workers last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.