IRVINE, Calif. — America’s nearly $4 billion winter vegetable harvest is in jeopardy if the Obama administration doesn’t immediately speed up foreign guest worker visa applications that have been stalled during the government shutdown, the Western Growers Association warns.
The Office of Foreign Labor Certification at the U.S. Department of Labor has been closed since Oct. 1 and processing of H-2A guest worker applications was halted just when the growing season for winter vegetables was getting underway, the association said in a news release.
Federal workers who were furloughed under the partial government shutdown were to return to work Oct. 17.
It usually takes at least eight weeks to process H-2A applications and if workers are not in place by Nov. 18, consequences will be dire, said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers.
“The H-2A program has never been efficient or responsive to needs of employers or workers even in the best of times,” Nassif said. “Inaction by Congress on immigration reform has forced farmers to turn to H-2A in desperation, but if these applications are not processed in an expedited manner, the Yuma and Imperial winter vegetable harvest, which relies on thousands of H-2A workers, will suffer and consumers will face a shortage of domestic fresh produce. Prices will surely rise as supplies diminish.”
Desert regions of Arizona and California produce 90 percent of the country’s vegetables in winter. Applications have not been processed for more than two weeks and a backlog has grown.
Some 30 to 50 percent of agricultural workers in Yuma County, Ariz., and Imperial County, Calif., are H-2A guest workers during the winter, the association said.
— Dan Wheat