North East apple growers dodged a bullet this week, when a resolution to the stalled and bogged down Jamaican H2A program was finally announced by Senator Leahy’s (Vermont) office. The announcement of the resolution was made after industry leaders and elected officials worked tirelessly for the last few weeks to ‘fix’ the system.
Apple growers began receiving RFE’s (request for more evidence), from the U.S. Customs Immigration Service earlier this summer, requesting more information on applications. Until the RFE’s were answered, applications were being either denied, or returned. The issue was that the U.S. State Department, because of the new Administrations H2A rules, had reclassified the Jamaican Center Labor Organization from a government agency to a labor contractor, and imposed new regulations on them having to do with worker deductions.
This new twist in the system was poised to shut down the arrivals of apple pickers in New York and the Northeast, and as apples began to ripen, the workers were still in Kingston. Thanks to the hard work of New York Senators Schumer and Gellibrand, and the lead action by Senator Leahy, an 11th-hour agreement was hammered out between the USCIS, JCLO, and the Department of State. New York Congressmen Lee, Owens, and Maffie were also instrumental in the solution.
Working together, the New York Apple Assocaition, USApple Assocaition, New York State Farm Bureau, and Craig Regelbrugge of ACER, convened a number of calls and worked closely with congressional leaders to help solve the problem, It was truly a collaborative effort by industry and elected leaders.
The USCIS accepted and appreciated the fact that the Northeast apple harvest is early this year, and that labor was being delayed. A solution was offered up that would expedite the applications, and provided a template response to be filed to satisfy the RFE’s from USCIS.
The good news is that it will pave the way to expedite the arrival of the workers; the bad news is that it is only a temporary, one-year fix. Next season, changes will need to be made to fix it forever. Whew! It was a close call, and the ironic part of the problem is, that while the country continues to bark about immigration and immigration reform, the only legalized source of farm labor available to US farmers, the H2A program, came moments away from a total train wreck and complete failure to provide workers. All because of a change to a 50-year-old program, that, even with its traditional problems, worked.