The union's efforts to import temporary workers under an existing government program follows similar moves by lawmakers in Arizona and Colorado, who are also trying to create new pathways to bring in foreign field hands without approval from Washington.
This month, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez signed an agreement with the governor of the Mexican state of Michoacan to help recruit local residents to apply for temporary jobs on U.S. farms, all of which would be covered under union contracts.
Under the new pact, government field staff in Michoacan will distribute information on U.S. labor protections, especially in rural towns known for sending a large number of their residents north.
In exchange, the union will negotiate contracts with U.S. growers willing to guarantee that legal workers' rights will be respected on both sides of the border, UFW International Director Erik Nicholson said.
The UFW got involved after hearing that Mexican recruiters were charging people as much as $5,000 for short-term contracts under the existing, but rarely used federal guest worker program, Nicholson said.
"Agriculture is a global industry, so we're building an international infrastructure to advocate for these global workers," Nicholson said. "Workers need to know about their rights on both sides of the border."
Immigration raids and employer penalties have led to a shortage of workers in the nation's largest farm states, leading many in the agriculture industry to conclude that growers can't get their products to market without a stable supply of workers from abroad.
But with Congress deadlocked over immigration reform, the question is under what conditions the workers will be hired - legally or illegally.
The farm labor force in the U.S. currently numbers about 1.6 million people, 70 percent of whom are thought to be undocumented, according to people in the industry. Only about 70,000 farm workers were brought in from abroad last year for the short stints permitted under H2-A visas issued by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The UFW wants to increase those numbers by matching willing workers in Mexico with U.S. farmers ready to use the H2-A program. That would in turn help grow the union's membership, which has been in decline.
Legislators in Arizona are considering a proposal that would let employers recruit workers through Mexican consulates, if they could document a labor shortage. A similar Colorado bill aims to help chili and watermelon farmers hire foreign staff by eliminating the bottlenecks in the federal program.
Both put the Labor Department in an awkward position, and could be challenged in court, said Leon Sequeira, its assistant secretary for policy.
"I don't think anybody would object to organizations trying to prevent recruiters from charging workers exorbitant fees," Sequeira said. "But it's new territory when you are talking about states setting up their own guest worker programs and letting aliens into the country."
The federal government is trying to stave off the state-by-state approach by tinkering with its existing guest worker program, and released a set of proposed changes in February.