Mike Horrall worried when he saw his asparagus crop coming in early.
The seasonal workers he’d arranged to hire through a program that brings legal immigrants to Indiana farms had yet to arrive.
And he couldn’t get answers from the bureaucracy that processes visas for thousands of temporary workers who tend and harvest millions of acres of food crops across the country.
Horrall had visions of 350 acres of asparagus rotting.
“Every day they’re not here, we’re losing money,” said Horrall, of his Knox County farm. “What we produce is all perishable. Once you lose it, it’s too late.”
The workers eventually arrived — “just in the nick of time,” he said.
But Horrall and others fear a crisis ahead. A program, known as H-2A, that allows guest agricultural workers into the United States on temporary visas is routinely plagued with problems.
Farm advocates, including the American Farm Bureau, say it’s gotten worse, as demand for labor has doubled and native farm workers are increasingly hard to find.
Last year, as Horrall’s crops needed harvesting, a crew he’d hired was stranded at the Mexican border. A computer glitch in the systems that connect the federal departments of State and Homeland Security shut down the processing of worker visas. That created a monumental backup for about 100,000 seasonal workers.
Growers of fresh fruits and vegetables in Arizona and California – the nation’s biggest agricultural state — claimed they’d lost $1 million each day of the two-week shutdown.
The loss wasn’t nearly as severe for Horrall and Indiana farmers. But Horrall did end up paying for the temporary housing he’d secured, as required by the federal worker program, even though it sat empty for weeks.
“It’s very frustrating for everyone,” he said. “The whole thing needs to be fixed.”
Earlier this week, facing increased pressure from members of Congress from farm states, the federal government approved a system to expedite H-2A visas. In making the change, federal labor officials recognized that the current system, designed to approve requests 30 days before farmers need the workers, is months behind schedule.
The change, in part, speeds up approvals by allowing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to send information for H-2A petitions to the State Department via the Internet.
Kyle Cline, a policy adviser with the Indiana Farm Bureau, said the change could help.
“We are encouraged by this announcement and see it as a positive that the feds have recognized the problems,” he said. “Time will tell.”
The H-2A program was created in the 1990s as a way to verify that those who legally arrive in the United States for seasonal work aren’t criminals. It was also designed to monitor how the workers are treated, guaranteeing wages and housing.
The program requires Horrall and other farmers to verify that they cannot find willing, capable American workers. The paperwork required is massive and cumbersome.
Last month, the American Farm Bureau Federation reported that requests for seasonal workers are up 13 percent over last year, when the government issued about 140,000 H-2A visas. They’ve more than doubled over the past decade.
The seasonal workers represent just a small percentage of about 2 million farm workers in the United States. But they play a critical role, tending and harvesting the fruit and vegetable crops that are unsuitable for equipment that’s replaced some farm labor.
Indiana’s melon farmers, for example, rely heavily on H-2A workers.
“The work they do is incredibly hard. It’s not work most people want to do,” Horrall said.
The American Farm Bureau and others are advocating for broader reform. They’d like a market-based visa program, managed by Department of Agriculture, leading to a more reliable and legal agriculture workforce, among other changes.
But the case for change is hard to make in the current political climate, where talk of immigration reform is shouted down.
A 2013 immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate contained language that would have created a more permanent agricultural workforce, in part by speeding the path to citizenship for workers here legally. Proponents said it would have significantly reduced the number of workers in the country illegally.
But the proposal was killed by Republicans in the House of Representatives.
There’s been little talk of reviving it since.
“It’s such a politically charged issue,” Cline said. “Farmers are worried that little, if any, progress will be made addressing these and other problems until we get beyond the current impasse on immigration reform.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.