Corn farmer and Tuxedo Corn Co. owner John Harold was sitting down to refile his paperwork for immigrant farmworkers this week at the same time a bipartisan group of senators was firing off a letter to the Secretary of Labor expressing concern about the increasingly snarled farmworker program.
Employers who hire workers must fill out complicated documents to request workers, and Harold had checked a single box wrong on the H2-A form. It was returned to him less than a month before he is due to begin planting.
Harold is dealing with a convoluted system that is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. In the past two years, a new layer of consulate-level administration has been added to the mix.
"The problem is that this program is managed by three agencies, plus one," Harold said.
Colorado's U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet pointed out in the letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis that the 60-year-old H2-A program is creating growing struggles for food producers. He and the five other senators who cosigned the letter asked Solis why there is a lack of uniformity in the application of H2-A regulations and why there are so many administrative delays.
"We write to express concerns with the administration of the H-2A visa system and its serious implications on producers and our nation's food supply," Bennet wrote.
The H2-A program was authorized under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 to help fill agriculture-related labor shortages. The program allows for the admission of guest workers on temporary visas for seasonal work.
The program mostly has worked out for large producers like Harold who count on the seasonal workers to fill jobs that locals won't do.
But getting those workers comes with headaches for large producers and does not work at all for some smaller growers because of its many onerous requirements.
Growers must provide housing and transportation for the workers. They must pay $10.43 an hour. And they must prove that they have tried to hire locals before they are allowed to bring in foreign workers.
Harold said when he tried that last year, the local workers stayed on the job for an average of six hours. His H-2A workers all stayed on the job for the entire season.
Some producers say applications are not processed in a timely manner, so they have been left with crops needing picking and no workers to do that.
"For now, H2-A is the only safety net we have, and it is in tatters," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
Bennet pointed out that criticisms of the program are supported by Department of Labor data.
That data show that in 2006 and 2007 , the department set a goal of processing 95 percent of H2-A applications in a timely manner. The compliance rate for those years was 57 percent and 56 percent, respectively. For the current year, the department has lowered is compliance target rate to 57 percent.
Since 2008, appeals of denied H2-A applications have grown by 800 percent.