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Adding new fuel to the growing fire over farm labor reform, the Government Accountability Office issued a report in September describing the H-2A program as time-consuming, complex, and challenging. While there are an estimated 1.5 to 1.75 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States each year, H-2A supplied its greatest number of workers in 2008—about 64,000—and despite efforts to improve its processes, mustered only 55,000 in 2011.

The vast majority of H-2A workers come from Mexico, and nearly half of those are processed through the Monterrey consulate in Mexico. There, they are fingerprinted and photographed before the Department of State issues a visa. The department approved 94 percent of all who requested visas in 2011, the GAO report said. Yet is was not clear why this pipeline of workers functioned so poorly, except that three U.S. agencies—Labor, State, and Homeland Security—all have authority that is not coordinated and relies on lots of paper handling.

In 2011, 63 percent of employer applications were issued deficiency notices from the Department of Labor, questioning their applications. That was up from only 15 percent in 2008, and had increased greatly in 2009 and 2010 as well. The Department of Labor has begun to use e-mail in communicating with farmer applicants.

In its conclusions, GAO said, “Many employers said Labor’s implementation of new regulations has made the application process more difficult, resulting in delays and costly appeals.

“The H-2A application process consists of a series of sequential steps conducted by varied agencies, no one of which bears responsibility for monitoring or assessing the performance of the process as a whole. Negotiating this largely paper-based process can be time consuming, complex, and ­challenging for employers.

“The associated difficulties can impose a burden on H-2A employers that is not borne by ­employers who break the law and hire undocumented workers.”

As immigration rules are tightened and the economy improves for U.S. workers, more employers may need to use the H-2A program to obtain foreign workers, the report said. This potential influx of new users could exacerbate existing problems if changes are not made to improve the application process.

In commenting on the GAO’s release of the “long-awaited report on the dysfunctional H-2A agricultural guest-worker program,” Frank Gasparini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said:

“Although they did include a good review of the failures and difficulties for users, we are somewhat disappointed that the report does not include more detail on what (and how) federal agencies could take positive action to make the program serve growers as Congress intended.”