OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington Farm Labor Association will try to bring workers from Mexico next week to help with the state’s apple and pear harvests, but its director fears more backlogs unless the U.S. State Department makes H-2A farmworker visas a priority.
The normal two-day border crossing process for farmworkers requesting H-2A seasonal work visas began experiencing delays July 7 and all but ground to a halt July 20 when a computer glitch crashed the State Department’s visa database worldwide, said Dan Fazio, association director.
On July 31, a State Department website estimated a backlog of 200,000 visas worldwide and was resolving the problem by issuing most as non-immigrant visas. However, the department warned non-immigrant visa applicants might still experience delays of up to one week.
Fazio called that “unacceptable” in an Aug. 5 letter to Michele Bond, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary of consular affairs.
It is “crucial,” Fazio wrote, for applicants to be processed in the normal two days because Washington tree fruit crops are ripening faster than expected in hot weather and need to be harvested on time so that they don’t rot.
WAFLA suspended its requests for visa processing on July 28 after a group of applicants was stuck on the border and prospective employers had to send them money for sustenance.
Fazio said he plans to resume visa applicant appointments at the Tijuana Consulate Aug. 11-13 for 725 workers and is reserving buses and hotels for them.
“We urge you, in strongest terms, to provide a priority for farmworkers requesting H-2A visas,” Fazio wrote to Bond.
In addition to the 725 workers, WAFLA also needs to bring 775 more workers through the border for Washington orchardists in coming weeks, Fazio said.
Approximately 7,000 H-2A workers are already in the state and more are needed to supplement an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 domestic seasonal workers expected to harvest a record apple crop, he said.
WAFLA represents about 80 percent of Washington’s farmers who request H-2A workers. Most of them are tree fruit growers. The state Employment Security Department estimated a 14.3 percent seasonal agricultural labor shortage in April and then suspended its monthly survey due to budget cuts.
Fazio credited Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., for working to resolve the problem and said the Tijuana Consulate on July 31 indicated to Murray that H-2A visas are a top priority.
Farmworkers in southern Mexico earn less than $10 per day but make more than $100 per day coming to Washington on H-2A visas, Fazio said. Workers can earn more than $8,000 in 10 weeks during Washington’s apple harvest — approximately three years of earnings in many parts of Mexico, he said.
That’s significant for them and the loss of that income is a hardship, he said.
A legal, functioning H-2A program benefits workers and farmers and shows government willingness to solve immigration and border issues, Fazio said.
Under the program, farmers pay high wages, provide housing for workers and pay their round-trip transportation from Mexico.
“Supporting the federally sanctioned seasonal worker program will prove that our country is committed to providing a safe and regulated environment for farm laborers,” Fazio wrote to Bond. “Farmers in Washington have invested tens of millions of dollars in the program in the past five years, trusting the program would be effective.”