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The Washington Farm Labor Association announced to its members today that it has cancelled all upcoming Consulate appointments for farm workers seeking work visas due to the inability of the State Department to produce visas. The usually smooth two-day visa process declined in efficiency starting on July 8th, and has been at a complete stand-still since July 21. As of today, a group of farm workers has been stranded at the border for nine days. They have run out of money and are relying on funds being wired by their prospective employer.
In early July, informal liaison with the U.S. Consulate staff in Tijuana indicated the delays were caused by the humanitarian crisis related to unaccompanied minors from Central America. Last Thursday, the State Department issued a statement blaming the delays on a technical glitch, which it promised would beresolved “as soon as possible.”
“This is truly a crisis. The workers are stuck at the border with no money, and the farmers have no workers. This is not any way to treat employers who are paying thousands of dollars per worker, or workers who are trying to do the right thing,” said WAFLA director Dan Fazio.
The federal H-2A 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 8,000 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.
In a letter to Senator Patty Murray, WAFLA asks that any deal for humanitarian aid include a provision to fix the visa issue and provide adequate funding for workers and farmers who do not receive visas. WAFLA staff is working closely with the staffs of Senator Murray and Representative Denny Heck. Thus far there has been no breakthrough. WAFLA has also written to the State Department explaining why farm workers should be provided a priority for visas.
"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 and crops are going to rot in the field.”
Actors on P-2 or O-1 visas are apparently being given a priority for visas, while workers who cannot afford meals and hotel rooms are being told to wait. Farmers in Washington state pay more than $1,000 per worker to use this legal worker program.
Included in this amount is a payment of $190 fee for each worker visa appointment. 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.
WAFLA is asking Congress to immediately authorize a payment from the U.S. Consulate directly to the worker for each day that a worker is asked to wait, and compensation for losses farmers are suffering. In its billion dollar deliberations to support the processing of undocumented asylum-seekers, Congress should also grant funds to process the legal visa-seekers who are stranded at the borders.