Computer glitch strands hundreds of fruit pickers at U.S.: Mexico border

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Hundreds of Mexican farm workers have been stranded for two weeks along the U.S. border after a government computer failure left them unable to obtain visas sought for them by Washington state cherry growers, officials said on Monday.

In the meantime, agricultural officials said, cherry crops have been spoiling in the trees because the orchards lack enough workers to pick them.

Since a State Department database crashed on June 9, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has managed to process fewer than half the applications it has received seeking H-2A visas for temporary farm employment.

The visas have been granted to about 1,250 workers who had previously obtained them, but 1,500 first-time applicants cannot yet get the documents because of the computer failure, according to State Department spokeswoman Julia Straker.

Among those waiting are more than 550 would-be workers sponsored by the Washington Farm Labor Association, a nonprofit group that represents growers.

Many have been stuck in Tijuana, across the Mexican border from San Diego, waiting for their visas to come through so they can proceed to jobs waiting for them in the cherry orchards, said Roxana Macias, program manager for the labor group.

Time was running out for the cherry crop, she said.

“Cherries are timely; if you don’t get them in the 10- to 14-day window when they’re ready to harvest, they become mush,” Macias said.

Washington is the single largest producer of sweet cherries in the United States, generating $385 million in revenue in 2013, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Many of the workers who come to harvest cherries stay to harvest blueberries, the next crop to ripen, labor association director Dan Fazio said.

“Our farmers are all in for the guest worker program, but the government isn’t,” Fazio said. “We have a lot of cherries that are ruined and it looks like a lot of blueberries are going to be lost.”

The association paid $1,500 per worker for the visas, and has spent more than $100,000 to provide housing and food for the workers in Mexico, legal services and other efforts to get the workers in Tijuana to the crops in Washington, Fazio said.

“I don’t know if this damages the entire Washington sweet cherry crop,” Fazio said. “But I know that I have growers whose entire crop is wiped out.”

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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