Hundreds of Mexican farmworkers have been stranded along the U.S. border for two weeks after a U.S. government computer failure left them unable to obtain visas sought for them by Washington state cherry growers, officials said Monday.
Since a State Department database crashed on June 9, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has managed to process fewer than half of the applications it has received seeking H-2A visas for temporary farm employment. The State Department did not say how many people have been affected by the glitch, but it handles an average of 50,000 visa applications every day.
Among those waiting are more than 550 would-be workers sponsored by the Washington Farm Labor Association, a nonprofit group that represents growers.
In the meantime, agricultural officials said, cherry crops have been spoiling in the trees because the orchards lack enough workers to pick them.
Washington is the largest producer of sweet cherries in the United States, generating $385 million in revenue in 2013, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers, said that in previous years a cherry picker would receive between four and five dollars for every bin that they filled. This year, he says the going rate is seven dollars.
Many farmers have been stuck in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, waiting for their visas to come through so they can proceed to jobs waiting for them in the cherry orchards, said Roxana Macias, program manager for the Washington Farm Labor Association.
WAFLA paid $1,500 per worker for the visas, and has spent more than $100,000 to provide housing and food for the workers in Mexico, legal services and other efforts to get the workers in Tijuana to the crops in Washington, said Dan Fazio, the organization’s director.
“Cherries are timely; if you don’t get them in the 10- to 14-day window when they’re ready to harvest, they become mush,” Macias said.
“I don’t know if this damages the entire Washington sweet cherry crop,” Fazio said. “But I know that I have growers whose entire crop is wiped out.”
On June 15, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, asking them to fix the problem.
“Each day that workers sit at the border, waiting on their final documents, Washington farmers are losing a valuable cherry crop that is wasting away in their fields because there are insufficient workers,” wrote Newhouse.
The Yakima Herald reported on June 18 that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security issued emergency waivers for roughly 90 percent of the backlogged applications, but that 137 workers scheduled to come later had their appointments cancelled.
There is also the added pressure of the hottest June on record in the state of Washington. This weekend, temperatures might rise as high as 110 degrees.
“I think that part of the issue is that you've got people here whose livelihoods that depend on a two week window or a three week window,” said Thurlby. “And between Mother Nature and the H-2A program breaking down in places, there's a high level of frustration.”
Visas have been granted to about 1,250 workers nationwide who had previously obtained them, but 1,500 first-time applicants cannot yet get the documents because of the computer failure, Julia Straker, a State Department spokeswoman, told Reuters.
“We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers and recognize the hardship to those waiting for visas,” said a statement on the State Department's website, "and in some cases, their family members or employers in the United States."
This is not the first time that the State Department has run into technical issues. The consular database was taken down last July by another technical glitch that had the same effect, but the department said the current issue is unrelated. The department said it was working "urgently to identify the problem and correct it."
State Department Press Secretary John Kirby said at a press conference on Tuesday that 45 thousand visas were issued yesterday, and that 33 embassies and consulates representing 66 percent of normal capacity are now online and issuing visas.
“I don’t’ want to be overly rosy here. We’ve got the fix in place. Things seem to be working. There’s a big backlog.”
Al Jazeera with wire services
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