OLYMPIA, Wash. — It’s not as smooth as it would like, but the Washington Farm Labor Association says the H-2A guestworker visa program is working at the U.S.-Mexican border again.
More than a month after the process slowed and almost three weeks after it halted, the association resumed visa appointments for guestworkers at the border and was getting visas granted, said Dan Fazio, association director who went to Tijuana to oversee the process.
But of the first 230 workers applying for visas, 67 were delayed by administrative problems that should have been addressed prior to scheduling appointments, he said.
In another case, applicants were allowed to make appointments on a date the consulate was unavailable, he said, and in yet another situation workers were not granted visas because of a mistaken agency belief that an underlying employer application was invalid.
A recent Government Accountability Office study of the H-2A application process said it consists of a series of sequential steps by various agencies in which no one bears responsibility for monitoring the process as a whole, Fazio said.
Washington growers have started the harvest of a huge apple crop estimated at a record 140.2 million, 40-pound boxes. At the same time it is harvesting pears. Growers are concerned about having enough pickers.
Washington growers requested more than 8,700 legal, H-2A visa guestworkers to help in the harvests and in the preceding harvest of cherries and apple thinning. Most of the 8,700 are in tree fruit and arrived earlier in the season, but about 1,500 remained to come as of early July when border problems began. The U.S. State Department’s visa database crashed on July 20, according to the State Department, causing a backlog of 200,000 non-immigrant visas worldwide.
Now the 1,500 are beginning to flow for Washington growers who have invested $50 million in the past five years to comply with the visa program, providing housing and transportation for workers, Fazio said.
The association represents 80 percent of Washington’s H-2A employers, handling their arrival and some management among growers on contracts.
The Washington apple industry is poised to produce $3.5 billion in revenues for growers and packer-shippers from the 2014 crop and its impact on the state’s economy may reach $10 billion, Fazio said.
“A reliable, legal and stable seasonal workforce is essential to the continued growth of the tree fruit industry,” Fazio said. “Washington growers have embraced the legal guestworker program and now we need the government to do its part.”
He thanked U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., and the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana and Hermosillo for working to resolve the situation.