Big Jump In Use of Temporary Foreign Farmhands in 2013 In Washington State

By Tom Banse

Northwest farmers hired significantly more foreign guest workers this season under a special immigration program. Farms in Washington state accounted for most of the increase in this region, followed by Idaho. Oregon farmers tend not to use the special visa much.

Farmers worried about having enough hands to process labor-intensive crops can hire temporary foreign workers after they prove they can't find anyone in this country. The guest workers recruited here through this legal avenue mostly come from Mexico. 

By federal law, they have to be paid above minimum wage and provided free housing and transportation. The formal name for the program is the H-2A visa. Washington Farm Labor Association director Dan Fazio says the number of local farmers using the program rose nearly 50 percent this year.

Dan Fazio: "For the farmer, it guarantees a worker. We just basically have a big shortage of work-authorized workers who want to do seasonal labor."

Fazio says this season just over 6,000 foreign workers received permission to legally work in Washington agriculture.

"The number of workers sourced through H-2A (program) continues to grow at double digit rates, a trend that we expect to continue," elaborated Fazio in a new report by his association. Fazio wrote Washington state has moved up into fourth place nationally in the number of ag guest worker positions approved, behind North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. "A few short years ago, we didn't even make the top ten," Fazio says.

According to the Idaho Department of Labor, farm employers in the Gem State sought approval for 409 foreign guest worker positions in the 2013 season. That represents a small increase over the 389 openings in the prior season that could not be filled domestically.

In Oregon, the number of H-2A applications actually went down. This year, Oregon farmers requested 155 temporary foreign farmhands compared to 230 last season.

Some farmworker advocates have long criticized this program as vulnerable to abuse. And some farmers shy away from the extra fees and reams of paperwork. Fazio says it is most popular in the Northwest in the tree fruit industry where large numbers of workers are needed for short periods to bring in the apple, cherry, peach and pear harvests.

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