The Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) is drawing attention to the plight of Mexican guest workers, who have been stranded at the U.S. border, and of the agricultural employers who urgently need them to harvest their crops.
Hundreds of workers who have contracted to work in Washington through the H-2A foreign guest worker program have faced long delays in obtaining visas because of a reported computer problem that has been preventing the State Department from doing fingerprinting and background checks.
WAFLA, which handles about 80 percent of Washington growers’ H-2A applications, has appealed to members of Congress to put pressure on the department to fix the problem as quickly as possible.
About 10,000 workers are expected to come to work on Washington farms this season.
WAFLA has called for a visa waiver, which is allowed by law. However, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has told WAFLA it will charge $591 per worker to process the requests on top of the normal background fee paid.
WAFLA is paying for hotels, meals, and cancelled transportation for workers stuck at the border.
Visas were issued intermittently this week, but WAFLA members still have 27 guest workers waiting and delays in processing other workers during the next two weeks are likely, according to WAFLA.
Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA, noted that six government agencies are involved in process of hiring H-2A workers and none is responsible for the final outcome.
Similar computer glitches held up workers last year, and Fazio said it’s important that the government establish a way to work around the broken system if it happens again.
The government needs to recognize that the H-2A worker visas should be treated as emergency visas, not as business visas, he said, because growers risk losing their crops if they don’t have people to harvest them.
H-2A visas cannot be obtained before the workers arrive at the border.
WAFLA plans to send a staff member to Tijuana on Monday (June 22) to try to resolve the issue.