Ag Policy Blog

Groups Upset Over Problems with H-2A Program

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Highlighting some of the problems with the current H-2A program, the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Association of State Departments of Agriculture called out the Department of Labor for failing to process H-2A applications in a reasonable time.

Farm Bureau stated that federal agencies were taking too long processing visas for guest workers who help plant and harvest fields. Farm Bureau said the situation is approaching a crisis and guaranteed that crops would rot in fields this year due to the bureaucratic problems. Farm Bureau leaders were aware of problems in at least 20 states.

“Many farmer members have called us and state Farm Bureaus asking for help,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “They face serious hurdles in getting visas for workers in time to tend and harvest this year’s crops. 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.”

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black and Michigan Director of Agriculture Jamie Clover Adams joined producers to highlight the need for enhanced coordination.

“Producers are encountering serious bureaucratic delays getting labor to harvest their crops. Without a solution, farmers are facing a crisis and will be left with crops rotting in their fields. Farmers and ranchers across the country will endure serious economic hardship and consumers will see increased costs at grocery stores,” Black said.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the Department of Labor reported 139,832 H-2A workers filled positions around the country, a 16.5% increase over 2014. The number of H-2A requests and positions filled has been steadily increasing in recent years, particularly as states and the federal government have more frequently targeted illegal ag labor.

“The H-2A program has seen an 85% increase in requests over the last five years with little additional resources allocated. The department needs to prioritize their resources to address this backlog,” Clover Adams said. “The Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security need to better coordinate resources and communication to alleviate these delays and inform growers when their labor is coming. Further, USDA needs to be consulted and help these agencies understand the seasonal nature of American agriculture.”

Several farm groups have complained in recent weeks about such technical problems and delays in H-2A processing, ranging from California vegetable growers to members of the sheep industry.

Duvall said farmers depend on the H-2A agricultural visa program to fill gaps in the nation’s ag labor system, but, Duvall said, the program is far from perfect. Processing and procedural delays, such as the government’s use of U.S. mail instead of electronic communications, are leading to losses from unharvested crops. The Labor Department too often fails to comply with rules that require it to respond to farmers’ requests before crews are needed.

“Crops can’t wait on paperwork,” Duvall said. “DOL is routinely failing to approve applications 30 days prior to the day farmers need workers. That delay, coupled with delays occurring at USCIS, places farmers in an impossible situation. We’ve heard from members who are already missing their window of opportunity to harvest. They are already facing lost revenue.”

Despite a political standstill that seems unlikely to improve before 2017, Duvall repeated Farm Bureau's call for Congress to pass immigration reform that provides farmers access to a legal and stable workforce. He also outlined possible solutions to the challenge, including modernizing agency H-2A approval procedures. He said DOL and USCIS both rely on sending documents to farmers by regular mail, which he called “unacceptable in 2016.”

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