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November 6, 2013

Crops at risk because farmworkers’ visas in short supply

FLORIDA — Paul Meador is concerned that his citrus groves might rot if his seasonal farmworkers don’t get their visas in time for the harvest season that begins within a week.

“I have about 10 days until I’m in trouble,” Meador, vice president for Everglades Harvesting & Hauling Inc., said last week.

During the recent government shutdown, the Departments of Labor and State, as well as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service all were unable to process the H-2A visas.

The voluntary H-2A program allows employers to hire and bring foreign workers to the U.S. for seasonal work when there’s a shortage of domestic employees.

Lawmakers and agriculture representatives in Florida fear further delays in processing those visas could lead to crops left rotting in the fields.

That’s prompted the Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and several other lawmakers to send a letter asking Labor, State and U.S.C.I.S.to speed up the  processing of agricultural visas so crops don’t go to waste.

“If you can’t get the crops picked, they will rot on the trees,” Nelson said.

Moreover, Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., Miami-based Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and 23 other lawmakers signed a similar House version of the letter Oct. 18.

“This is not something that you can just postpone, because these crops have to be picked,” Diaz-Balart said.

An immigration reform advocate, Diaz-Balart said visa applications usually take four to six weeks to process.

In the Oct. 17 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and other federal officials, Nelson and nine other senators said the recent government shutdown slowed the processing of visa petitions for foreign agricultural workers.

The senators pointed out they’ve heard from growers that delays could prevent them from getting the needed workers during harvest season, which could result in economic harm and crop losses.

The letter urged federal officials “to take as many steps as you can to speed up the processing of H-2A petitions, so that we can minimize the harm that is inflicted upon U.S. growers and consumers from the shutdown.”

In response to the letters and concerns, Labor officials said their agency and U.S.C.I.S. have implemented a process that would help expedite the process.

The Department of Labor has additional staff working on processing these visas for the next 30 days to clear the backlog.

Everglades Harvesting & Hauling Inc., in LaBelle, Fla., which has 2,000 acres of citrus mainly in Collier, Hendry, Glades and Highlands counties, hires about 400 guest workers with H-2A visas a year. Meador said they have a very small amount of domestic workers for harvesting season.

(Reach Naples Daily News reporter Tracy X. Miguel at tmiguelnaplesnews.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

 

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