OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington Farm Labor Association says it has quit bringing H-2A visa guestworkers into Washington from Mexico because of the U.S. State Department’s inability to produce visas.
Fortunately, most H-2A guestworkers needed in Washington, mainly for harvest of tree fruit, are already in the state, but more than 1,000 in WAFLA’s program for the first three weeks of August are now on hold, said Dan Fazio, WAFLA director.
Washington will exceed 8,000 H-2A workers this year with 80 percent of those handled by WAFLA mainly for Central Washington tree fruit growers.
Many have been in the state for cherry harvest and apple thinning and will continue into apple and pear harvest. But more come as H-2A workers and make up about one-sixth of the labor force needed to harvest apples and pears. Harvest starts soon and growers have already been concerned about having enough pickers because they expect a record apple crop.
The federal H-2A program allows farmers to request visas for workers when there is a shortage of domestic workers. Farmers must pay round-trip transportation costs for the workers from their country of origin and provide housing for them while they work in the U.S.
A usually smooth, two-day visa process slowed July 8 and has been at a standstill since July 21, Fazio said.
A group of farmworkers seeking visas has been stuck at the border for nine days. They are running out of money and are relying on money wired from prospective employers, he said, noting he has canceled all upcoming consulate appointments in his program for farmworkers seeking visas.
“This is truly a crisis. The workers are stuck at the border with no money and the farmers have no workers,” Fazio said. “This is not any way to treat employers who are paying thousands of dollars per worker or workers who are trying to do the right thing.”
In early July, an informal liaison with the U.S. Consulate staff in Tijuana indicated the delays were caused by the humanitarian crisis related to unaccompanied minors from Central America, he said. On July 24, the State Department issued a statement blaming a technical glitch and promising to resolve the problem as soon as possible, he said.
But the problem is affecting H-2A visas at Tijuana, Nogales and other entry points and other states needing H-2A workers, he said.
North Carolina uses the most H-2A workers, but most of them are already in the state, he said. California uses about 3,000 to 4,000, he said.
WAFLA is working with the State Department and the offices of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., to resolve the matter, but so far there has been no breakthrough, Fazio said.
The government is asking potential employers to give workers stuck at the border $30 a day, he said.
WAFLA is asking Congress to pay that $30, plus $150 per day per worker in lost wages and $500 a day in lost productivity to growers, he said.