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Northwest Farmers Anxiously Await Overdue Guest Workers

A farmworker in Western Washington.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones
A farmworker in Western Washington.

Hundreds of farm workers from Mexico are now making their way to the Northwest after a major delay.

A computer glitch crippled the U.S. visa system, including a guest worker program that Northwest farmers increasingly rely on.

Buses sat on the U.S. side of the Tijuana border, ready to shuttle workers north. Workers sat in hotels, waiting for a final stamp on their visa. They’d already waited two weeks. But finally, on Tuesday, it looked like all systems were go. Hundreds of seasonal workers will arrive at Washington farms this week.

Dan Fazio is with the Washington Farm Labor Association, which coordinates the guest worker program for several farms. He says this delay has cost growers.

"Cherries don’t get picked, or apples don’t get thinned, or vegetables don’t get picked," Fazio said. "That’s sort of the way it goes."

And, he says, the delay has cost workers.

“The workers in Washington state make as much in one month as they make in a full year as a farmworker in Mexico," Fazio said. "So they really rely on this.”

This year, Washington growers are set to bring up about 10,000 guest workers. That’s more than triple the number from 2011.

A technical problem that started in early June halted visa entries to the U.S. The problem is mostly fixed, and the feds prioritized visas for this backlog of farmworkers.  

Despite the glitches, Fazio says growers still support the program. With a labor shortage, they don’t have much other choice.

Fazio says this federal program has hit snags before. He says the country needs immigration reform to create a better system.

“We owe it to ourselves," he says. "We owe it to the workers to give them the dignity of legal presence.”

Year started with KUOW: 2006