A US government computer glitch has left hundreds of migrant farm workers stranded at the Mexican border, as their would-be employers now search for replacements to harvest their summer crops and combat further economic losses on both sides of the border.
Farms across the US rely on the H-2A visa program to hire temporary workers for each harvesting season. But the computer failure has prevented the government from issuing these visas to the predominantly Mexican workforce since last Wednesday.
“The longer it goes on, the more it is going to back up and cascade and be a bigger problem for more and more people,” said Kerry Scott, program manager at Mas Labor, a Virginia-based agency that acts as a middleman between would-be workers in Mexico and farms in the US.
On Tuesday, the agency had 357 Mexican workers trapped at various points along the border. Scott said that the level of damage it could cause for harvesting varied “farm by farm” – as some crops ripen more quickly, depending on the time of year.
“This process is always slow and cumbersome, and by the time the workers are arriving, on a normal basis, they are usually already late or about to be late so this just exacerbates the problem,” said Scott.
The majority of seasonal workers come from poor rural villages in states as far flung as Chiapas, Yucatan and Guerrero, which can mean bus journeys of up to two days just to reach the border. Some US employers reimburse basic transport and accommodation costs, others only pay for the work visa. None will cover the unforeseen costs resulting from the visa crisis.
While US farmers are concerned about the rotting orchards and the potential for prices to rise as a result, Mexicans are losing money as they won’t be paid for the days missed stuck at the border waiting for the visa system to be repaired.
Temporary legal workers are paid an hourly rate, set by the department of agriculture, which currently varies from $10 in Alabama to just over $13 an hour in South Dakota. Farm workers typically toil 10 hours a day during the harvest, earning at least $100 a day – ten times what many can earn in Mexico. Most will wire home the vast majority of their salaries to support their families.
Zazyl Moreira runs an agency based in Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city in the border state of Nuevo Leon, which helps seasonal workers sort out their temporary visas.
On Tuesday, a group of 13 men from Michoacan contracted for six months to harvest vegetables by one farm in Indiana arrived at the agency after a 16-hour journey.
When they arrived at the consulate in Monterrey for the scheduled interview, they discovered that the office was closed, with no one available to speak to them. These men had given up their farm jobs at home to travel to Indiana, where they’d been contracted for six months for the third year in a row.
Francisco Javier Sanchez, 26, told the Guardian: “We cannot afford to stay in Monterrey, so we’re probably going to have to return home as it’s too dangerous to cross the border with a coyote. No one will help us pay for this wasted journey. I have a wife and seven-year old daughter at home, I need to start working.”
A worker labors at farm outside San Luis, Arizona. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A worker labors at farm outside San Luis, Arizona. Photograph: Eric Thayer/Reuters
The dangerous, expensive wait for a visa
The visa glitch is affecting all seasonal workers, not just farm hands.
Activists believe this glitch is showcasing the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, said that there are enough workers in the US that farmers should not have to rely on the H-2A program. “It’s been extremely easy for the agriculture industry to bring in guest workers to the work that US-based farmworkers can do,” she said.
She said that the H-2A program leaves immigrant workers at the mercy of the farmers who sponsor them to come over. “Worker rights and civil rights are very difficult to enforce because they are basically tied to the employer and they can be easily deported,” she said.
Because the visa system is down, Guillen said she hopes farmers will turn to skilled workers who are already in the US, but are passed over because they demand higher wages and better protections. “For us, it means some of the local domestic workers may actually get jobs – at least that’s what I’m hoping,” she said.
Adrienne DerVartanian, director of immigration and labor tights at Farmworker Justice, echoed Guillen’s concerns that the H-2A program only offers modest worker protections to a vulnerable workforce. “Ironically, there wouldn’t be a problem here if Congress passed comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
Her group believes such reforms would offer protections for farmers and workers who are suffering from the delay.
“The debt that H-2A workers carry to the United States – from illegal recruitment fees and travel costs – increases their desperation to work,” DerVartanian said. “Because of their dependence on their employer for their continued ability to work in the United States, it also increases their vulnerability in the workplace.”
José Mario Saldaña, 25, also from Michoacan, was due to start a six-month contract with a landscape gardening company in Maryland last week. He travelled 12 hours from his home to Monterrey last Wednesday. He completed the biometric test but his visa interview was cancelled. He returned back home two days later, having spent $200 on travel, accommodation and food.
Saldaña told The Guardian from his home in Michoacan: “Here, I can only find two or three days farm work a week which pays $10 a day, I cannot support my family on that, but in Maryland the company is going to pay me $10 an hour. I’ve been told to wait here until they call me with a new appointment, I hope it is soon, I have four children to support, so I need to get to Maryland as soon as possible.”
Moreira said: “We’ve just been told by the consulate that interviews will not be rescheduled until at least June 25, so lots of workers will lose almost a month’s work in the US. This means their kids will have to go without tennis shoes or they won’t be able to afford a birthday party, it’s a big deal, they really need these jobs.”
Professor Rodolfo Casillas, a migration specialist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Mexico City, said that the current crisis reveals a much wider conflict within US migration policies.
“The technical problem will be resolved in a few weeks, but the immediate aftermath for the US agricultural economy, the search by agricultural companies to find enough labor illegally and the need for workers to work, will without doubt encourage the smuggling of migrants, and increase the costs and the risks of crossing the border undocumented,” Casillas said.
“All this means more tension, more conflict and more profits for those operating outside of the migration scheme.”