Stemilt employee and H-2A member participant, Elizabeth Hernandez answers questions prior to visiting the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico on on May 12, 2014. (Courtesy Heri Chapula/Washington Farm Labor Association)

Stemilt employee, Elizabeth Hernandez, talks with H-2A candidates in Tijuana, Mexico on May 12, 2014. (Courtesy Heri Chapula/Washington Farm Labor Association)

The Washington Farm Labor Association says it will resume scheduling  crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border for farm workers, but warned it fears massive border backlogs unless the Secretary of State takes action to prioritize farm worker visa requests.

The association says the normally smooth two-day border crossing process for farm workers requesting H-2A seasonal worker visas began to have delays on July 7, and all but ground to a halt after a computer glitch crashed the State Department’s visa database on July 20, according to State Department reports. 

WAFLA suspended its requests for visa processing on July 28, but will resume border crossing attempts on August 11. Northwest farmers are requesting nearly 1,500 new worker visas for apple and pear harvest activities, to join the approximately 7,000 guest workers who are already in the state. WAFLA represents about 80 percent of the farmers who apply for these visas, and plans to schedule 725 border crossing appointments in the week of August 11.

“Unless we have a functioning guest worker program, the apple harvest will fail,”  WAFLA director Dan Fazio said in a press release.  “The H-2A program minimizes the effects of the labor shortage, thereby benefitting all farmers in the area.”

Estimates on the number of domestic workers who participate in fall harvest activities vary greatly, from under 40,000 to as high as 60,000. The high variance is due to the difficulty in counting large numbers of undocumented migrant workers. The state has estimated a labor shortage of at least 15 percent.

According to an article in the Yakima Herald-Republic, the most recent update earlier this week from the State Department website said the agency is “working to bring the Consular Consolidated Database back to full operational capacity.”

According to the Herald:

Fazio said “hard work” by the staffs of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, helped speed up the processing of some visa requests.He said Murray’s office has communicated that the Consulate General in Tijuana has made the guest workers its “first priority.”The farm labor association is urging growers to contact their congressional representatives to urge them to make farm workers a priority.Pete Verbrugge, president of Valley Fruit in Wapato, has some H-2A employees in his orchards now and is expecting more to arrive in September. He does not have any currently stuck on the border, but says finding labor is a perennial concern.“We always worry about that,” Verbrugge said. 

The association released a video (below) it said was with a worker who was turned away from the U.S. border after waiting five days for a Visa.  The worker says in the past he’s entered the U.S. legally several times without any hitches. The interview is in Spanish with English subtitles.