In a recent survey of our members who use the H-2A program, more than half experienced delays in getting their workers last year. This year, with the influx of H-2B visa applications at the Department of Labor (DOL), and the greater overall demand for the H-2A program, there is a real concern that H-2A visa applications will be substantially delayed as the harvest season approaches for many of our members.
To address this growing trepidation among our members, I traveled as part of a delegation of Western Growers’ Board of Directors to Washington, D.C., last week. The purpose of our fly-in was to meet with the agencies responsible for processing H-2A applications in an effort to make them fully aware of our challenges in using the program and to establish accountability for needed improvements to the system. As Directors, we did our best to represent all of you who use the H-2A program. I want to thank my colleagues for their contributions, as well as their continued dedication to serving the WG membership.
In addition to key administrators from DOL, we met with high-ranking officials from the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). I was impressed with the quality of meetings arranged by WG staff. I was also struck by the candor of our conversations with the agencies. We were allowed to express our frustrations with the H-2A system, which places our livelihoods in the hands of a bureaucracy that fails to move at the speed of business. The agencies agreed that more can (and should) be done.
Our message was twofold. In the near term, we voiced our apprehension about the coming H-2A season. We pressed the agencies to consider and implement simple enhancements that can streamline the process and deliver workers in a timely manner this year. Our list included suggestions such as reallocating staff and resources during peak periods, allowing H-2A users to submit I-129’s to USCIS prior to receiving certification from the Office of Foreign Labor Certification and implementing a waiver of the interview process for returning H-2A worker applicants.
As evidence of progress, we were encouraged to hear that the DOL wet signature requirement on “blue sheet” certifications will be replaced by a new form later this year.
Also for the near term, we proposed the appointment of an official within each agency responsible for shepherding the H-2A applications through the process. This individual would serve as a liaison between the H-2A user and the agency, communicating the applicant’s application status and facilitating the timely completion of corrective action, if required.
In the longer view, we communicated our belief that the H-2A program, as it is currently constructed, is set up to fail. With the number of agencies involved, delays are inevitable and compound from one stage in the process to the next. To streamline the transfer of critical information, we suggested the formation of an interagency task force to augment communication between the agencies, each other and the H-2A user community.
One overarching theme became apparent during our meetings: there is a lack of staff and technology at nearly every step in the H-2A process. One staffer even lamented that they would like to move into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. Clearly, more can be done by our elected representatives to provide DOL, State and USCIS with the resources they need to adequately handle the H-2A needs of U.S. agriculture.
During the course of our meetings, I believe our message was heard loud and clear: The status quo is unacceptable. I also believe we made some headway in our relationships with DOL, State and USCIS. The officials at these agencies now know our names and have heard our stories. This should go a long way in holding them more accountable for their future actions.
It is important to keep in mind that this is just the latest in a series of actions Western Growers has taken to address the developing H-2A crisis over the past several years. I promise much more is to come. For our next steps, we will continue engaging in dialogue with these agencies, pressing them for action and asking them to consider the possibility of collaborative effort. I will keep you informed of our progress.
Lawrence Cox Ranches
For a breakdown of WG H-2A activity, check out: Western Growers’ Leadership in H-2A document