Commentary: Bureaucratic delays weaken guestworker program


Issue Date: May 4, 2016
By Zippy Duvall
Zippy Duvall
More farmers have been trying to use the H-2A guestworker program to recruit citizens of other countries to perform farm work, but H-2A participants say the program has been plagued by delays. Farm Bureau continues to work toward long-term reform of U.S. immigration law, while pressing for improvements in the short-term performance of the H-2A program.
Photo/Paul Savage
More farmers have been trying to use the H-2A guestworker program to recruit citizens of other countries to perform farm work, but H-2A participants say the program has been plagued by delays. Farm Bureau continues to work toward long-term reform of U.S. immigration law, while pressing for improvements in the short-term performance of the H-2A program.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

Thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of our nation's farmers and ranchers, we enjoy an abundance of affordable, American-grown food. With summer nearly here, consumers are ready for their local grocery stores and markets to be fully stocked with their favorite fresh fruits and vegetables—and U.S. agriculture is eager to keep up with the demand for American food products.

But labor shortages and unreasonable visa delays challenge farmers' ability to get their crops harvested and to market.

There's no question that we need a long-term solution to protecting our borders while also securing a legal, reliable workforce for agriculture. The fix won't be quick or easy, but it is possible.

Farmers need a market-based visa program, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gives both employers and workers flexibility for long- and short-term work.

While it will take time to achieve the full reform we need, there are serious problems on the ground with our current system that can and must be addressed now. The current H-2A and H-2B system ignores the real-time needs of agriculture, and we're seeing a prime example right now with massive visa paperwork delays at the Department of Labor.

Farmers across the country are already missing deadlines to have crews in place because of a bureaucratic hold-up with guestworker visa applications. Even after carefully following all the procedures and filing the proper paperwork, farmers are kept waiting 30 days or more for Labor Department approval. The law itself says approval time should be 10 to 15 days, but the government is far behind—with no sign of catching up.

It's time for the agency to shape up and bring the system into the 21st century, before our agricultural labor situation worsens.

Unfortunately, ignoring the unique labor needs of agriculture seems to be business as usual for the Labor Department. That's why Farm Bureau is calling on the Department of Agriculture to step in. We need USDA to ensure that farmers have the workforce we need to stay in business and continue to provide safe and affordable food. Farmers and ranchers need an agency that understands their labor needs managing this system.

Delays in worker visa approvals may sound like just a human resources headache, but these delays can be devastating for farmers. A crew showing up 30 to 40 days late just doesn't work when crops need to be planted, tended and harvested. Crops don't wait for stacks of bureaucratic paperwork to clear.

Yes, we need a long-term solution, including attention to border security, to fully solve agriculture's labor problem. But we also need a fix today for the needless delays that are keeping farmers from running their businesses.

(Zippy Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Georgia, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.