(AP) — As the economy tanked during the past two years, a debate has raged over whether immigrants are taking jobs that Americans want. Here, amid the sweltering vineyards of the largest farm state, the answer is no.

Most Americans simply don't apply for jobs harvesting fruits and vegetables in California, where one of every eight people is out of work, according to government data for a federal seasonal farmworker program analyzed by The Associated Press.

And the few unemployed Americans who apply through official channels usually don't stay on in the fields, a point comedian Stephen Colbert — dressed as a field hand — has alluded to in recent broadcasts on Comedy Central.

"It's just not something that most Americans are going to pack up their bags and move here to do," said farmer Steve Fortin, who pays $10.25 an hour to foreign workers to trim strawberry plants for six weeks each summer at his nursery near the Nevada border. He has spent $3,000 this year ensuring domestic workers have first dibs on his jobs in the sparsely populated stretch of the state, advertising in newspapers and on an electronic job registry.

But he hasn't had any takers, and only one farmer in the state hired anyone using a little-known, little-used program to hire foreign farmworkers the legal way — by applying for guest worker visas.
Since January, California farmers have posted ads for 1,160 farmworker positions open to U.S. citizens and legal residents seeking work.

Only 233 people applied after being linked with the jobs through unemployment offices in California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. One grower brought on 36 U.S citizens or legal permanent residents. No one else hired any.

"It surprises me, too, but we do put the information out there for the public," said Lucy Ruelas, who manages the California Employment Development Department's agricultural services unit. "If an applicant sees the reality of the job, they might change their mind."

The California figures represent a small sample of efforts to recruit domestic workers under the H-2A Guest Worker Program, but they provide a snapshot of how hard it is to lure Americans to farm labor — and to get growers to use the program.

Fortin is one of just 23 of the estimated 40,900 full-time farmers and ranchers in California who petitioned this year to bring in foreign farmworkers through legal means, the government data showed. The Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment about the findings.

More than half of farmworkers in the United States are illegal immigrants, according to the Labor Department, and another fourth of them were born outside the country. Proponents of tougher immigration laws — as well as the United Farm Workers of America — say farmers are used to a cheap, largely undocumented work force, and say if growers raised wages and improved working conditions, the jobs would attract Americans.

So far, a tongue-in-cheek effort by Colbert and the UFW to get Americans to take farm jobs has been more effective in attracting applicants than the official channels.

The UFW in June launched the "Take Our Jobs Campaign," inviting people to go online and apply.
About 8,600 people filled out an application form, but only 7 have been placed in farm jobs, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

Colbert joked to a House Congressional committee Friday that spending a day picking beans in upstate New York for an episode was "really, really hard."

Colbert's comedic activism makes a point Fortin is familiar with. Some Americans referred for jobs at his nursery couldn't do the grueling work.

"A few years ago when domestic workers were referred here, we saw absentee problems, and we had people asking for time off after they had just started," he said. "Some were actually planting the plants upside down."

Source: Associated Press