Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Visas suspended for H-2A workers until May 11

Swine flu delays H-2A worker visas
Some tobacco farmers left shorthanded

By Rosa Moore

Paperwork that allows visas for H-2A workers from Mexico to work for local tobacco farmers have been suspended until May 11 because of concerns over the swine flu (H1N1 virus).

According to a labor management corporation and the United States Embassy in Mexico City, the visas for the H-2A workers are not being processed causing delays for tobacco farmers.

“The U.S. government has decided to close all U.S. consulate posts in Mexico until May 11 in response to the swine flu,” Sarah Farrell, President of International Labor Management Corporation out of Vass, N.C. said. “Visa processing in its entirety has ceased, this includes tourist visas, H-2A and any type of work visas.”

Farrell said in an interview Tuesday that there is no plan at this time to close the border. Farrell also said the U.S. could choose to extend the visa suspension past May 11.

According to a Congressional research service report on temporary farm labor, H-2A is a temporary agricultural worker program that allows farmers to hire foreign workers to perform full-time temporary or seasonal work on farms in the United States.

Temporary or seasonal work employment is work that is performed during certain seasons or periods of the year.

According to the Center for Tobacco Grower Research Web site, there were approximately 4,800 H-2A workers in the state of Kentucky in 2007.

The H1N1 virus, commonly referred to as the swine flu, is a new form of the influenza virus that was first detected in the United States in April. This virus spreads in much the same way that the regular seasonal influenza viruses spread and has similar symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the U.S. - Mexican border is technically not closed, Todd County farmers say it seems that way to them.

“If (the consulate) was going to close the border for the swine flu they should have closed it weeks ago,” tobacco farmer Ronald Stokes said. “Why wait until all the cows were out of the barn before you shut the gate?”

Stokes said he’s trying to set tobacco and doesn’t have any help. He said he was expecting 10 workers. Stokes said he’s getting what he needs to do done because he and the one worker are working to midnight or later, he said.

“It’s hard to do when you’re short-handed,” he said. “I’ll get help when they open the border but I don’t know when that will be.”

Other tobacco farmers like George Addison Jr. and Randy Jordan share similar plights. Addison, along with his dad and brother, typically have nine workers come in to help during the tobacco season.

“(The workers) were scheduled to arrive on (May 7) but our H-2A agent told us they were shutting down the border and it would be at least (May 10) or (May 11) before the border would open,” Addison said. “I can’t wait until they get here, it will make things a lot easier when they do.”

Jordan uses H-2A workers and said he is waiting for the workers to arrive after the May 11 deadline as well.

Gwenda Bond, spokesperson from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services said that H-2A workers arriving in Todd County weren’t of a concern and that there is no need to be afraid or weary of people from different countries.

Bond said that most of the reported cases have been in Caucasians that have traveled within the United States and although Mexico has the highest reported number of cases, there’s not a greater risk of anyone of a certain nationality or racial background.

“The incubation period for this illness is 3 to 7 days so chances are that someone would have symptoms early on,” she said. “It does not just affect Hispanics, anyone can potentially be exposed to it.”

Farrell, who handles some of the H-2A workers for farmers in Todd County, confirmed that even though the border is open, information she received from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said that visa processing has been suspended and workers aren’t able to come.

One of the workers scheduled to arrive on Stokes farm last week was sent home due to a glitch in paperwork. Stokes said that the glitch had something to do with the fee associated with his work visa and that it took a day or two to clear up. Stokes said by the time the worker returned the consulate had closed and he wasn’t allowed to cross.

Numerous calls were placed to both the national and regional offices of the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and to the Department of Homeland Security in Washington D.C.

Even among the various federal agencies there is confusion about exactly what is being done at the border and the consulate posts in Mexico concerning H-2A workers.

Homeland Security spokesperson Amy Goodall told the Standard Tuesday that the information about the H-2A workers was inaccurate and that Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano didn’t make mention of the suspension of visa processing in her most recent press briefing.

“H-2A visas are handled by USCIS and I’m not sure why that (information) is coming from the Embassy but at this point I don’t have any reason to believe that it is accurate,” Goodall said.

However, according to information released by the U.S, Embassy in Mexico City, visa processing has been suspended until May 6, but Farrell told the Standard Tuesday that the deadline had been extended to May 11.

Information released on April 28, through a travel alert by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs confirmed that all visa operations would be suspended.

Curt Judy, Todd County Extension Agent for Ag and Natural Resources, said that H-2A workers are extremely important to the tobacco industry.

The farmers here wouldn't be able to raise tobacco if they were unable to get the migrant workers because the other source of labor just doesn't exist anymore.

"You have a lot of money invested when a crop of tobacco is put out and you're in a situation where you've got to have the laborers to get it cut and in the barn," he said. "The H-2A workers are committed to the grower and have a contractual arrangement so a farmer has the assurance of the labor lined out, otherwise you would be looking at a ad-hoc basis trying to find laborers and wind up not getting the tobacco cut or not getting it cut on time. The H-2A workers make it possible for us to raise tobacco in this county."


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