WASHINGTON -- This month's federal government shutdown caused a backup in seasonal farmworkers' visa applications that some groups say could lead to a labor shortage during the coming winter vegetable harvest.
Without workers to harvest the crops, farmers will not only lose income but will be less likely to spend on supplies and equipment, damaging Arizona's economy and leading to a nationwide rise in vegetable prices, said a spokeswoman with the Western Growers Association.
The spokeswoman, Wendy Fink-Weber, said no H-2A visas for seasonal farmworkers were processed during the 16-day shutdown that ended Thursday. If the Labor Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cannot process enough of the backlogged applications by the time of the harvest in November, farmers will be hard-pressed to get their crops in, she said.
Fink-Weber said foreign workers are needed, because there is not enough available labor within the U.S. for the harvest.
"We don't have enough workers," she said. "Americans won't do this job. That's been demonstrated time and time again."
The association said that about 90 percent of the country's winter vegetable harvest comes from Arizona or California, and about a third of the agricultural workers in Yuma County are here under an H-2A visa.
Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Friday that it will make an exception for applicants who have evidence that their visa applications were delayed because of the government shutdown.
But Jacob Sapochnik, an immigration lawyer based in San Diego, said the proposed exception will not entirely take care of the problem. Farmers and laborers both need to submit paperwork as part of the H-2A process, so it is not as simple as exempting individual applicants, Sapochnik said.
"This process is already complicated," he said. "Now we have to prove that it's a result of the shutdown."
Because of those complications, Sapochnik said, there will still be a negative impact on Arizona farmers and the state's economy.
The extent of the economic damage is hard to predict, Fink-Weber said. For one thing, farmers do not know exactly when the harvest will be: Nov. 18 is a good guess, but the date could move forward or back a couple weeks depending on the weather, Fink-Weber said.
"It's always a guessing game as to when the workers are going to be required, within a couple weeks or so," she said.
Leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce and celery are most likely to be affected, she said. Citrus could also be hurt, but Fink-Weber said there tends to be more flexibility in the harvest schedule for those crops.
She said the Western Growers Association has asked the Department of Labor and members of Congress to help expedite the process so that the visas can be finalized in time for the harvest. One of those whom the association reached out to, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, plans to send a letter to the Department of Labor on Monday about the issue, said spokesman Ruben Reyes.
The crisis is just the latest sign that the U.S. needs a "workable visa program," said Arizona Farm Bureau President Kevin Rogers, in an email Friday. Even without a government shutdown, some crops were not harvested last year because of a labor shortage, he said.
Rogers said he was not surprised that there was a backlog following this month's shutdown and that without visa reform, Arizona will continue to face similar problems.