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.
“Right now they are leaving (the border) and going back to their $8 per-day jobs,” he said.
Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers, said he heard about a grower in Arizona that has been unable to bring in 200 guest workers, some of whom have been waiting in Tijuana more than a week.
“I don’t know that there is a real sense of urgency of how much this is impacting people,” Gasperini said.
Fazio said the U.S. government must resolve the long delays, which he said began to occur about July 7. Even if technical problems in the State Department’s computer system are solved, Fazio said there could be long delays at the border because of the backlog in processing guest workers.
As the U.S. deals with the much-publicized issue of thousands of undocumented children crossing the U.S. Mexican border, Fazio said the U.S. authorities must ensure legal agricultural guest workers can come to the U.S.
The U.S. also must address the guest worker program before it funds humanitarian relief efforts for border crossings. said Fazio.
“We are not going to have labor-intensive agriculture in this country unless we can get a usable guest worker program and this program is a long way from usable,” Fazio said.
Lee Wicker. deputy directory of the Vass, N.C.-based North Carolina Growers Association, said it is possible sweet potato growers in Mississippi or Louisiana will lack H-2A workers if delays continue. However, he said public and political pressure is building on the State Department.
“I expect them to get it fixed very quickly,” he said.
Growers rely heavily on the guest worker program and when it doesn’t deliver it can be devastating, he said.
“This problem with the State Department is a classic example of why growers in general have shunned the H-2A program,” he said.