More than 3,000 farm workers seeking temporary immigrant visas are stranded outside the U.S. by a government computer glitch that halted security checks more than a week ago.
Producers in California, the biggest farm state, are losing $500,000 to $1 million a day as harvests slow for crops from berries and melons to cherries, said Tom Nassif, chief executive officer of the Western Growers Association based in Irvine, California.
The backlog of applications from farmworkers has climbed steadily since June 9, when the U.S. stopped granting H-2A guest-worker program visas, Nassif said.
“People are piling up,” said Nassif, whose organization’s members produce half of all U.S. fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, according to the organization. “We don’t know when this is going to end.”
The State Department, which processes applications, is having technical problems with its system and is “working on this problem 24/7,” spokesman Niles Cole said in an e-mail. “We do not expect the system will be online before next week.”
Cole said the government issued almost 750 H-2A visas this week for applicants whose biometric data, such as fingerprints, was captured and recorded before the failure.
The H-2A guest-worker program lets agricultural laborers into the U.S. on a temporary basis to help harvest crops. Efforts to expand legal agricultural immigration have stalled in Congress as Republicans and Democrats argue over border security, potential citizenship for undocumented workers and other issues.
The total being denied entry is a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million agricultural field workers in the U.S., more than half of whom are in the country illegally, according to Labor Department estimates.
Secretary of State John Kerry was urged in a letter yesterday from Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of Washington, along with Arizona’s Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, to give H-2A visas priority over non-emergency visa applications.
“The visa delays are causing the agriculture industry to suffer significant economic losses,” the senators wrote. “We further understand that employers are concerned about the safety and well-being of their H-2A workers, who may be targeted by smugglers and cartel members while awaiting prolonged visa issuance.”
Of the 3,000 stranded farmworkers, about 600 applicants are headed to California, with 423 of them staying in hotels in Tijuana, Mexico, Nassif said.