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U.S. to speed up visas for foreign crop pickers

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Published:   |   Updated: October 30, 2013 at 05:51 AM

TAMPA — The U.S. Department of Labor has moved to speed up applications for foreign labor to help Florida growers pick the state’s winter citrus crop as it ripens toward harvest in the next few months.

The 17-day federal government shutdown earlier this month resulted in a backlog of applications at the Department of Labor, the first stop in securing temporary visas used for agricultural purposes.

In Florida, much of the harvesting work force is made up of foreign workers, mostly from Mexico and other Central American countries. Growers feared that if they didn’t get visas secured by November through the H-2A application process, fruit would be left on trees or rotting on the ground.

“We recognize that the government shutdown prompted legitimate concerns about the processing of H-2A labor certification applications, but we are hopeful that this process — along with a caseload that is significantly smaller than the highest-­volume times of the year — will allow us to process pending applications for the coming harvest in a timely manner,” Egan Reich, spokesman for the Department of Labor, said in an email this week.

The Labor Department’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification has assigned staff to all such applications at its Chicago National Processing Center. The office “is monitoring production several times a day,” Reich said.

Emergency measures taken to speed the process will last 30 days, until the last week of November.

Among the measures is a suspension of normal delivery requirements, enabling correspondence to be sent via email and in overnight shipments.

Harvesting winter citrus crops in Florida begins in November, and growers were concerned nobody would be available to pick the fruit.

The government was prodded by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who, with nine other lawmakers, sounded the alarm in a letter to the Labor Department, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department.

Nearly 100 citrus farmers across the state filed applications to bring in nearly 8,000 foreign workers.

“It’s getting down to brass tacks now,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, a cooperative association of about 8,000 Florida citrus growers. “We’ve got to get workers here. We are harvesting our crops now, bit by bit. We’re not in full swing yet, but we will be over the couple of weeks.”

The association kept lines of communication open with the Labor Department and others involved in the process during the shutdown.

“Through our political supporters, including Senator Bill Nelson, we’ve had a dialogue ongoing with them,” Meadows said. “We always were optimistic that they were going to react.

“What’s interesting was that this went way beyond Florida citrus,” he said. “There are specialty crops all across the country, including California, which has huge fruit and vegetable harvests, and they all were pushing for this. We were not on an island. We were nationwide.”

H-2A applicants are passed from the Department of Labor to Citizenship and Immigration Services. At that point, workers apply for visas in the nation of their origin.

Immigration services also has waived some requirements to push agricultural visas through, including temporarily accepting copies of some documents rather than originals.

“The temporary accommodation is being implemented because of the unique time sensitivities associated with agricultural work,” said a statement immigration services issued last week. The grace period lasts 30 days.

After that, the release said, H-2A petitioners must again submit the signed original of a certified document called a temporary labor certifications, or TLC, with their visa petitions.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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