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Guest Worker Advocate Began Life As Immigration Opponent


It failed a test. But is it dead? That's a question American farmers and high tech companies have about the immigration reform bill. Senators derailed the measure earlier this month. It would have made it easier for companies to bring in guest workers. One of those speaking up for Western growers has seen his personal views on immigration flip 180-degrees.

Farm advocate Jon Wyss was born and raised in Wyoming. He developed strong anti-immigration views growing up, and honed them on the high school debate team. "I grew up with a temporary labor force, wanting them not to be in the United States, wanting them not to be taking American jobs that Wyoming folks would do," he explains. "So, why are these people here? Kick everybody out of the country."

Wyss carried those commonly held opinions well into adulthood. Then, in 2002, the clean-cut blue-eyed fellow met the brunette who would later become his wife. They were both living in Spokane, Washington, and shared an interest in working on Republican campaigns. "He had signed up as a volunteer," Melanie says. "I was the volunteer coordinator and so I called him."

Melanie Wyss comes from the apple and cherry orchards of north central Washington. She's 5th-generation family farm stock, and has lived around migrant workers her entire life. Her stepdad is a Hispanic immigrant.

The couple dated for a while. But Melanie says the romance nearly unraveled over their differing views on immigration. "To me it was personal," she recalls. "And I also said, ''Well, how do you expect us to make a living? Because if there's no one here to pick the fruit, then we're not going to be here, period.'"

Jon remembers her walking toward the door. "She said 'this relationship is over. We're not going to agree on this issue. There's no reason for us to pursue this path.' I said ''Wait a minute, teach me.'" So they agreed to go on a drive to her family's farm, two-and-a-half hours west of Spokane.

Jon and Melanie often retrace the final few miles of that drive. "Myself, that's what I call my transformation highway," Jon confides. He was driving on the fateful day. Melanie sat in the passenger seat hoping he would recognize the scale of production and the labor needed to work it.

Her family's spread is the third largest fruit producer in Washington State, nearly 2500 hectares big. "As far as your eye can see to the left are apple orchards and cherry orchards," Jon marvels, "of which everything in there is harvested by hand."

The drive ended at a cherry orchard. An immigrant picker handed Jon a bucket and a ladder and laid down a challenge. He'd start picking at one end of the row and Jon at the other end and they'd see where they met. Jon recalls it wasn't even close. "I was trying to prove that Americans can and will do this work. I was able to say, 'Yes, I can do it.' But I realized that if I were to be doing it, we'd never get done. They would never get done."

Jon Wyss says it took him a matter of minutes to reconsider his long held views on kicking out immigrant workers.

Melanie has seen the anti-immigration political activist she would marry do a complete about-face. He now works for her family's Gebbers Farms. This March, he founded a grassroots lobbying group to support comprehensive immigration reform. "I think for me, it helps now. I go give speeches all over the state. If anybody will invite me to talk immigration, I'll come because of this kind of a story."

When he's not speaking somewhere in Washington state, Wyss is on the phone with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., lobbying to revive the guest worker program and pathway for legalization in the U.S. Senate's controversial immigration bill.