Commentary: H-2A unreliability threatens farm success

Commentary: H-2A unreliability threatens farm success

The federal H-2A program to supply temporary foreign farm workers is bogged down, and since the jobs the workers were expected to perform are not being done then farmers’ reactions are turning from pinch to pain. 

The federal program to supply temporary foreign farm workers is bogged down, and since the jobs the workers were expected to perform are not being done then farmers’ reactions are turning from pinch to pain.

Complaints are coming from the workers as well because they are not receiving the wages they expected as they are staying at home instead of occupying farm fields in California, Washington, Oregon, or several Midwest and Southern states.

Mother Nature is not willing to wait for the red tape to be unsnarled. Vegetable and strawberry growers on California’s Central Coast have reported damages as crops grow beyond their market ripeness waiting to be picked.

“Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications at both the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

He described the glitches as both processing and procedural in a system he described as far from perfect. 

Carlos Casteneda, a farm labor contractor in Nipomo, has used the H-2A program for three years. This year, he requested workers by March 15, but by mid-April none had shown up.

“I think we’ve been very respectful of all agencies, but I do see the issues with one agency not communicating with another,” he said.

He believes the agencies involved may have become overwhelmed by an increase in H-2A visa applications.

The H-2A program was initiated in 1986, and growers who applauded the feds’ willingness to become involved, warned that the extensive paperwork required by the government agencies threatened its successful operation.

It looks like they were right, but they’re hopeful a bureaucratic housecleaning can get the program back on the track.           

When proper applications are made by growers or other agricultural employers, the workers they have requested are granted visas. Employers must provide housing and meals for them, and must pay them at established rates. Some spend as little time as a month at their jobs, while others remain for as many as 10 months.

California has been somewhat of a latecomer in taking advantage of the program, but its reliance on H-2A workers has been consistent and growing once it began to take part. In April, a delegation from Western Growers visited representatives of the pertinent agencies in Washington, DC, suggesting several processing fixes. 

Besides California, the major users of H-2A workers have been in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Utah.  The number of visas issued has grown steadily from about 16,000 in 1997 to more than 89,000 in 2014. Last year, California alone imported that many workers and more.

The number of foreign countries that supply workers has grown steadily as well. It reached 84 last year with a few more apparently expected.

Of course, the major supplier of workers has been Mexico. In 1997, Mexico supplied 15,355 workers through the program. By 2014, the number had grown to 83,674, the overwhelming majority of the 89,274 visas issued.

While other Latin American countries contribute significantly to the H-2A worker population, South Africa and Romania have been consistent runners up.

No doubt the federal program has been able to supply badly needed workers in critical situations.  In Washington, cherry, pear, and apple growers have depended on it, and have profited from it.  With transportation, housing, and meals guaranteed, workers from far and near have been huge beneficiaries.

But it’s now obvious unreliability threatens its success. The feds operate in a bureaucratic jungle, apparently from necessity. Many farmers are not surprised that the H-2A program is stumbling over its own bureaucracy.

Makes them wonder why a simpler proven approach isn’t offered. Can you say “bracero”? 

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