(Updated June 18)
Nearly 200 workers who were designated for cherry harvest in Washington have been granted visa wavers by the U.S. State Department, Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) says.
A software problem, which plagued the entire visa processing system on June 9, is still being worked on and the state department says it doesn’t “expect the system will be online before next week.”
Read the updated release from WAFLA below
Most of the farm workers for WAFLA members who had been stranded at the border for more than a week obtained visas on Wednesday, June 17, day 9 of the crisis.
The State Department communicated an emergency software fix to Sen. Patty Murray’s office. The remainder of the stranded farm workers will be moving north by the end of the week. Unfortunately, the clearance system is still not functioning properly leaving workers with visa applications filed after June 9 unable to obtain consulate appointments to clear the system and cross.
There remain basic questions concerning whether the government is capable of administering a legal worker program that can meet the strict timelines set by Mother Nature.
“The State Department is not the culprit,” said wafla Director Dan Fazio. “The culprit is a system which requires seamless coordination by six government agencies.”
Here is a little background. The first day of a two day border crossing process involves fingerprinting and a background check. The State Department system which processes this bio-metric data went down. No one is suggesting that important security measures be bypassed. But why not have an emergency system for when the glitches occur?
An emergency system does exist. It is called a visa waiver. Tom Roach, one of the nation’s top immigration lawyers, researched the law and filed the petition on behalf of WAFLA on Tuesday, June 16. Please take a minute to read Mr. Roach’s outstanding petition.
Farm workers proceeded to the border on Tuesday and we expected they would be processed under the visa waiver law. But another federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) balked, despite the State Department supporting and approving the petition.
The offices of Sen. Patty Murray confirmed CBP’s decision. Here is what CBP told Sen. Murray:
Your inquiry was received and is currently with a congressional liaison for review. This process can either be very quick, very lengthy or somewhere in between depending on the complexity of the issue. Thank you for your continued patience as we work on this.
That is how an agency says no, without really saying no. And it is an example of how a government agency is capable of undermining the will of Congress and the legal worker program.
CBP told WAFLA they would process the request, but would need $591 for each worker. This is on top of the normal background check fee that was already paid; plus, hotels, meals, fees and cancelled transportation the employers already shelled out. It is like the government asking farmers to pay for their system failure. Another point, the law provides that fees be waived in emergencies like this.
Late Tuesday night, Rep. Dan Newhouse’s office inquired about CBP and the visa fee waiver, and these inquiries continued on Wednesday, but still no action.
The State Department, who had been working around the clock, announced workers on WAFLA petitions be summoned to the consulate and nearly 90% received their visas. They are on their way and will arrive in Washington state late Thursday. They are anxious to get to work and we are glad they are here.
The U.S. Department of State says a software problem is causing the most recent delays for travelers and workers requiring visas since June 9.
The Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) along with Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Dan Newhouse have been vocal about how the wide-scale problem is affecting growers in Washington, particularly cherry growers who are in the middle of harvest.
Newhouse has requested emergency relief for farmers who depend on the guest worker program.
In a letter issued June 16, Newhouse says, “What is most disturbing is this is not the first time a technical issue has halted the ability of consulates to be able to issue H-2A visas. When a similar situation happened last year, approved farmworkers heading to Washington’s 4th Congressional District received emergency entrance.”
WAFLA says they are covering hotel and meals for H-2A workers who are waiting to cross the border in Tijuana, Mexico.
The Department of State says they haven’t found evidence of a cyber attack to these computer systems.
Farm workers are being turned away at the Mexico border, says the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), because the U.S. State Department struggles to processes H-2A visas in Tijuana, Mexico.
WAFLA says they have notified several hundred workers along with member growers in Washington State that visa problems at the State Department may continue, effectively halting legal worker crossings.
In 2014, WAFLA and other labor organizations worked through a similar issue processing visa paperwork, ultimately requiring the help from members of congress to resolve the problem.
Read the full release from WAFLA
Olympia, June 11, 2015: Washington Farm Labor Association (wafla) announced today that it is cancelling all visa appointments until it can receive assurances that farm worker visas will be printed.
“We have 224 workers stranded at the border right now. They are out of money and have no place to stay, and this is the third time this year this has happened,” said WAFLA director Dan Fazio.
In addition to the 224 workers who are stuck at the border, another 137 appointments for next week have been cancelled.
“Without an assurance that the State Department can fix their system, we cannot in good faith send workers to the border next week,” said WAFLA program manager Roxana Macias.
The latest snafu, stranding 224 workers, occurred this week. Workers arrived in Tijuana on Sunday for appointments on Monday, with visas due to be printed on Tuesday, June 9. Agents for WAFLA were verbally advised there is a “system wide” problem, and that only “emergency visas” were being printed.
WAFLA sent a letter to the State Department requesting H-2A visas be a priority status. As of 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 11, there is no information listed on the U.S. Department of State website to explain why the visas are not being printed.
“The workers are stuck at the border with no money. These are farm workers who make $10 per day in Mexico but $100 to $200 per day in the U.S. – if they can get a visa,” said Macias.
The situation is eerily similar to what occurred in July 2014, when the entire visa printing system ground to a halt due to a software problem. At that time, the office of Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Denny Heck worked to obtain a priority for the printing of farm worker visas.
The federal H-2A legal worker program allows farmers to request visas for workers when there is a shortage of domestic workers. Workers are attracted to the program because it offers high wages and many benefits. More than 10,000 farm workers will travel to Washington this year to participate in seasonal activities under the H-2A program – if they can obtain visas. Wafla files approximately 80 percent of the H-2A applications in Washington State.
Farmers in Washington state have embraced the legal worker program, pouring more than $50 million into new housing for workers in the past several years. The program also pays high wages to workers – this year the guaranteed wage for Washington and Oregon is $12.42 per hour. The H-2A visa is unique because it requires the prospective employer to pay worker transportation and subsistence fees from the time the worker leaves home, even before the worker receives a visa.
“Having workers sit at the border without money is a crisis for workers and farmers,” explains Fazio. “The workers spend several hundred dollars, which the employer will reimburse if the workers get to Washington. Meanwhile, the workers who are relying on these high paying jobs to feed their families are instead sitting at the border. Workers are suffering while crops are rotting and we would like to know why.”