By Dave Sherwood
DEBLOIS, Maine (Reuters) - From beneath the brim of a tattered straw cap, Oscar Argueta, a 35-year-old coffee farmer from the cloud forests of Intibucá, Honduras, grins as he tops off a plastic crate of wild Maine blueberries.
Argueta said he can make as much as $1,000 per week here, with free housing, subsidized food and even health care provided, a deal that has long enticed migrants to Maine's blueberry fields from as far away as Mexico, Honduras and Haiti.
The work is back-breaking, he said, but the atmosphere festive. Mariachi music booms from loudspeakers, a roving lunch truck hawks authentic Mexican fare and workers jibe one another in their native Spanish.
Despite the perks, this year's trip will be Argueta's last to the far northeast of the United States, nearly 4,000 miles from the border with Mexico that is the focus of much of the nation's immigration debate.
"The tractors are taking all the good work," he said.
Argueta has a work visa and entered the country legally — a requirement as the larger blueberry growers adopt E-Verify, a federal electronic verification system that quickly catches false documents.
Jobs previously filled by those with dubious documents haven't transferred to Americans, as some proponents of E-Verify anticipated. Instead, many of Maine's largest growers have pushed to mechanize the harvest, eliminating many of the once-coveted seasonal jobs.
It is an unexpected consequence, observers said, of decades of uncertainty and political wrangling over immigration reform.
"Whether you're running a business or a family, everyone here just wants some long-term clarity on the issue. You can't plan for five years ahead because you don't know what the law will look like," said Ian Yaffe, executive director of Mano en Mano, a local group that aids migrant farm workers.
A comprehensive bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June included a proposal to help farmers and other businesses hire foreign workers, but was pronounced dead on arrival in the U.S. House of Representatives.
With little hope for resolution, Maine growers see few alternatives to mechanization, as migrant labor dries up and few Americans appear to take their place.
Though the state keeps no official tally, the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission said the number of seasonal workers employed here has dropped nearly 80 percent in 15 years, to fewer than 1,000 last year.
"There are people that say if we just paid more, Americans would do the work. But that's a joke," said Ed Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman & Son Inc, Maine's second-largest blueberry grower. Flanagan says hard-working pickers make as much as $20 an hour here, almost three times Maine's minimum wage of $7.50.
Unemployment has hovered persistently around 10 percent in Washington County, a poor, sparsely populated corner of Maine where the economy revolves around agriculture, forestry and tourism. The problem is acute throughout the oldest, whitest state in the nation.
Despite that, the seasonal jobs, which offer a short period of intense physical labor, found few takers among area residents and were traditionally filled by migrants.
"We could see the writing on the wall," said Ragnar Kamp, general manager of Cherryfield Foods Inc, Maine's largest blueberry grower.
"They kept turning the knob on us. It's becoming harder and harder to find people, and costing more and more to hire them. And the risks were terrible. It just wasn't worth it," he added, in reference to stricter federal regulation of migrant workers.
The company once hired as many as 1,500 handpickers, but has now turned entirely to a mechanized harvest, Kamp said.
In 2011, Whitney Blueberries, a smaller grower with just 300 acres, partnered with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure its seasonal staff of handpickers are legal, said company operations officer Durand Cercone.
"We want to do things right" said Cercone. "But every year its a gamble. You never know if enough people are going to show up to get the job done."
This year, he said they'd gotten lucky: A group of documented Haitians, many here as refugees and anxious to work, had filled vacant slots. Next year, he said, is anybody's guess.
"You can see why people are going towards mechanization," said Cercone. "It's a tough call when you've got berries rotting in the field."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)