Agency too slow on H-2A applications, farm labor director says

Dan Wheat/Capital Press FIle Francisco Trinidad, an H-2A-visa foreign guest worker, thins Gala apples at Zirkle Fruit Co.'s CRO Orchard south of Rock Island, Wash., last summer. WAFLA, an organization that helps growers apply for foreign H-2A workers, says one federal agency delays applications.

OLYMPIA — A federal agency involved in processing H-2A visas for foreign farmworkers to harvest U.S. crops remains uncooperative in making that process work, the director of a farm labor organization says.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “was unable to substantively answer questions” and only provided a generic department email address at an Oct. 12 conference in Dallas, Texas, said Dan Fazio, director and CEO of WAFLA, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association.

The conference was offered by the departments of State, Labor and Homeland Security, all involved in approving and issuing H-2A visas. USCIS is part of Homeland Security.

Capital Press did not get a reply from USCIS when asked for a comment.

A State Department official pledged to make H-2A work smoothly. Labor and Customs and Border Protection explained what they do and provided contact information, but three USCIS officials refused to provide any contact information other than the generic email address, Fazio said.

He said he presented a letter outlining the agency’s inability to process H-2A applications and asked for the name of someone with whom to follow up. He was given no name.

In his Oct. 3 letter to USCIS officials Donald Neufeld and Maria Odom, Fazio requests a Dec. 5 or 6 meeting with them and said in past years the agency was able to process H-2A applications on time and with few errors.

That changed this year with delays of more than six weeks, Requests for Evidence (RFE) issued in error and no response to inquiries from applicants or members of Congress, Fazio said.

The most serious problem, he wrote, is the agency won’t communicate by email or telephone, only by regular mail.

H-2A workers were delayed for a blueberry grower by an RFE questioning whether blueberry harvest is seasonal work, Fazio said. The grower, “one of the largest blueberry producers in the world,” was aided by his access to a “powerful” lobbyist but average employers lack that access, he said.

The “saddest” case was an Oregon grower who lost millions of dollars in high-value fruit because USCIS would not approve the transfer of H-2A workers from Washington in a timely manner, Fazio said.

He did not identify either grower.

WAFLA helped approximately 200 employers hire 9,000 H-2A workers this year. They were mostly in Washington but also in Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada and Michigan.

Obtaining the visas requires working with four federal agencies and, in Washington, two state agencies.

Delays also occurred in 2015, when the State Department said it had computer problems printing visas.

The Department of Labor is required by regulation to decide H-2A applications at least 30 days before the applicant’s date of need but there is no similar requirement for USCIS, Fazio said.

USCIS has a two-week goal but in many cases with WAFLA it took four weeks or more, guaranteeing workers would be late, he said.

The government should want to make H-2A work as an alternative and deterrent to illegal immigration, Fazio said. Employers and workers have to make decisions counting on certainty of work dates, he said.

“It is cruel to routinely cause a very poor farmworker to wait, without a job, when he or she could be earning substantial sums of money to support their family,” Fazio wrote in the letter.

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