Visa problems plague guest worker program

07/31/2014 05:29:00 PM
Tom Karst

U.S. State Department delays in granting visas to Mexican agricultural guest workers are raising alarms as growers wait for harvest crews, particularly those in the H-2A program.

In Washington state, more than a thousand workers scheduled to harvest apples in August could be delayed. Growers in Arizona and the Southeast U.S. have also experienced delays.

The database used to issue the visas started having major issues about July 20, said Nicole Thompson, spokeswoman for the State Department. The glitches were caused by a software update, she said, and may result in continuing delays of 10 to 20 days in processing all visas. Thompson said it was difficult to say when the system would be restored to normal capacity.

“We are working to rectify the situation very quickly,” she said.

On July 30, the Washington Farm Labor Association said it cancelled all upcoming consulate appointments in Mexico for farmworkers. The usually smooth two-day visa process had broken down and some farmworkers had been stranded at the border for nine days.

“We’re dealing with a crisis,” said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association. “We have some big crossings for the apple harvest the first few weeks in August.”

Fazio estimated more than 8,000 H-2A workers are scheduled to help with the apple harvest in Washington, and perhaps as many as 2,000 have not yet arrived, he said.

Some growers did not expect the delays to cause major problems.

Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, said the firm has H-2A workers already in the U.S. for the cherry harvest, and they move to apples.

“That’s one of the benefits we are trying to extract from our business, not to think about it like two different crops but a continuous season of agricultural needs,” Pepperl said.

Another group of about 800 guest workers that were supposed to help Southeast U.S. growers did not make their scheduled trip from Mexico in late July, Fazio said.

Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel with Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said the delays are causing major problems for H-2A employers.

“We’ve had members who have workers sitting in Tijuana for nine or ten days waiting to cross,” he said.

The number of growers using the H-2A program has been rising as labor shortages worsen, he said.

Under the rules of the H-2A, growers reimburse the costs of coming to the U.S., including before getting their visa, but guest workers have not been able to secure their visas, and many potential workers are going home, Fazio said.

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Steven Acre    
Turlock  |  August, 01, 2014 at 03:33 PM

The Federal government having computer problems? Oh...I forgot....that was Obamacare.

Produce Guy    
Texas  |  August, 04, 2014 at 08:00 AM

This would not be a problem if our own people would step up to the plate and work. We have a MAJOR WORK ETHIC PROBLEM in this country. The new generations have a COMPLETE AVERSION to manual labor. But don't take my word for it. Speak with business owners in every industry and they will tell you that turnover, employee abandonment and lack of motivated qualified applicants for anything that requires not sitting in a desk all day are at an all time high. The general excuse that we tend to hear is that wages are too low to attract qualified employees. While there is some truth to this statement, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not the real cause of the problem. Proof of this is the huge deficit of qualified workers that the oil industry is experiencing in Texas. With salaries starting in the mid 50's, it's hard to argue that money alone is the root of the labor shortage.

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