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Thursday, April 27, 2006 | John Mohns, president of Poway’s Benchmark Landscape had a problem on his hands after an immigration audit in the late 1990s found his company to have unknowingly employed “a number of workers that did not have the legal right to work in the United States.”
To comply with the law, he was forced to lay off the illegal workers that had been exposed. However, the company still had contracts to fulfill for commercial builders and properties that relied on their exceptional services of installing and maintaining landscaping, regardless of the audit’s repercussions.
“We not only suffered financial losses, but our safety record went out the window because we had to rehire and didn’t have time to train people properly,” Mohns said.
The 22-year-old landscape company has over 300 employees, 80 percent of which Mohns said are in the field.
After the immigration audit, Benchmark had trouble finding candidates for its jobs. Although Mohns received countless applications and responses to classified ads to fill their open positions, they were not from interested workers. Rather they were from individuals who applied to fill the state’s unemployment requirement of “looking for work.”
“The perception is that the labor pool is plentiful, but it’s not plentiful for companies that want to make sure their workforce is legal,” Mohns said. “My goal is to be a leader in the industry, to try to do different things to set the example that there are other avenues for getting employees.”
Mohns said he needed his company to remain competitive in the landscape world, so he contacted North County Legalization Services (NCLS) to find other methods of hiring.
“I wanted to look at any avenue that would give me good workers. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” Mohns said.
With their assistance, he became aware of the H-2B non-immigrant worker visas, which would offer foreign workers the opportunity to receive competitive wages, a social security card and a state ID during their temporary stay, while alleviating Benchmark’s worker situation.
Traditionally used on the East Coast and in the Midwest to fill seasonal voids in the tourism and food industries, Mohns and NCLS felt they could make a strong case in their favor. They also needed to show the basis of their need, whether it was a seasonal need, intermittent need, peak-load need or one-time occurrence need.
There are only 66,000 H-2B visas which can be awarded annually, so acquiring visas through this method is difficult. Yet, Mohns said he needed workers who he could hire, train and sustain, and wasn’t able to find them in San Diego’s job pool.
Yvette Lopez-Cooper, a San Diego immigration attorney, said employers in certain industries that rely on temporary workers do not have a valid means to maintain their workforce, due to the lack of accessible visas.
“There definitely are not sufficient visas available and that’s why people haven’t been able to qualify for them. That’s why it’s important the House and the Senate can come to an agreement to give employers real solutions,” she said.
Mohns needed a real solution. He had nothing to lose, and plenty to gain by trying this out-of-the-box method of employing. At a pricey $1500 per person, Mohns committed to sponsoring 20 foreign workers for the H-2B non-immigrant visas.
An opportunity to help his company and his workers had finally arrived.
Mohns asked his employees to submit the names of their friends and family members in Mexico who they’d like to see fill Benchmark’s open positions. The list was smaller than he anticipated due to his employees’ skepticism about the opportunity.
Their views quickly changed as Benchmark became the first company in the California Landscape Contractors Association, a non-profit trade organization of state licensed landscape and landscape-related limited specialty contractors, to bring in workers through the H-2B visa program in December of 2005.
The 20 new workers met at the American Consulate, where they signed their worker contracts and went through the routine fingerprinting before being taken to Benchmark, where they were greeted by employees and family members.
Benchmark showed their support for the new workers by paying for their hotel stay until the workers could find affordable housing. They were even taken to Wal-Mart for work attire and boots since many of them came, as Mohns said, “With only the shirt on their back.”
Ramiro Castillo, one of the 20 contracted employees, has embraced his new role as a laborer at Benchmark. He explained that he doesn’t even mind repaying the $1500 it cost to get him to the United States legally, because he can work worry free of being sent back before his term is up, while helping his family.
“These programs are important so we can better ourselves and work. This helps us to be legal here, you help your family more in Mexico and you go bettering yourself little by little,” he said in Spanish.
Oscar Guerrero, a supervisor at Benchmark agrees, and encourages the workers to take advantage of their time in the United States because they have a chance illegal immigrants aren’t given.
“Illegal immigrants risk their lives because the necessity is so high and the problems are so large in Mexico, they say they’d rather die intending for a future than die sitting, watching their children grow old and die the same as them,” Guerrero said, in Spanish.
“[H-2B workers] come with the motivation that they can earn more money and help their family. They come with the desire to work hard, more than a person that works just for their eight hours,” he said.
Nearly five months after their arrival, Mohns is so pleased with their work ethic that he’s ready to sponsor another group. To help all of his employees communicate at higher level, he is also putting on an eight-week English course which will be held on site to help bridge language barriers.
Although the odds were against him years ago, the times have clearly changed to reveal Benchmark’s determination and perseverance to lead by example. With only 66,000 H-2B workers across the county, Mohns said he would have been happy with just one, but to have been given 20, with the possibility of more… he’s simply in awe.
Companies that employee illegal workers will be safe no longer as the Department of Homeland Security began implementing crackdowns on employers who violate immigration laws last week, spawning countless raids and the arrests of more than 1,100 illegal immigrants during the 26 state operation.
Betsy Lopez Fritscher is voiceofsandiego.org’s office manager and editorial assistant. Contact her directly at