Aug. 01--Central Washington orchards, which have battled smoke and flames from July's wildfires, may have a new problem to contend with in August as apple harvest starts.
Legal workers from Mexico who are needed to pick apples and pears might be blocked or delayed at the border because of problems with the State Department's computerized visa system.
More than a dozen workers destined for Washington farms and orchards are currently stuck on the other side of the border. A process that normally takes two days currently can take two weeks, a state department spokeswoman said.
Nicole Thompson, the spokeswoman, said problems began early in July, and there's no estimate yet on when they will be fixed. "We are definitely making progress," she said, although the backlog for visa requests continues to grow.
The problem for the workers who want to come to the country legally and the farms that need them could explode this month.
"I've got more than 1,000 workers scheduled to come in the first three weeks of August," said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, which helps farms and orchards connect with eligible workers in Mexico and other foreign countries. "The system is broken."
The workers are trying to come to the United States legally with an H2A visa, which allows them to work temporarily at jobs that no American wants. The program, created by the 1986 immigration law, is cumbersome, Fazio said, and was unpopular with Washington farmers until the middle of the last decade because of rules for advertising the jobs, recruiting and payment.
Since 2007, however, the number of H2A workers has grown by at least 25 percent a year as farmers are able to hire reliable, experienced temporary employees and the workers can make as much in one month in the United States as they make in a year in their home country, he said.
Typically, the association has the recruited workers arrive at a border crossing like Tijuana on a Monday morning to present identification and file their paperwork, which the State Department checks. By Tuesday afternoon, the checks are complete and the workers are ferried to the border crossing, where there's a second check before they're cleared to enter the United States. They get in a waiting bus supplied by the employer and make the trip north. They are paid from the time they leave their homes.
Some of the association's recruited workers who arrived on July 7 were told there was a problem and only 15 of 40 workers could get visas on July 8. The remainder didn't get visas until two days later. The following week, there were more delays. This week, 16 workers have been stuck at the border unable to cross.
Initially the association was told the delay was a result of the humanitarian crisis involving unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, Fazio said. Later, the delays were attributed to computer problems.
Thompson said the delays have "absolutely nothing to do" with the unaccompanied minors, who are crossing illegally and without visas. Early in the month the department began having problems with its computer system, known as CCD, that issues visas. The system is old and was due for an update, but the new software that was installed has trouble working with the database.
"We've never had a problem like this before," she said.
The department is giving priority to visas for permanent immigration, adoptions and people from countries like Afghanistan who previously worked for the U.S. government, Thompson said. It is issuing other visas for emergencies on a case-by-case basis.
One reported beneficiary of such emergency treatment was Daniel Radcliffe, the British actor who played Harry Potter, who was delayed for a day in Toronto on his way to Los Angeles for Comic-Con. Thompson said she couldn't comment on any individual visa case.
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