State farm labor group recruits workers in Mexico

KENNEWICK — A Washington state farm labor group plans to travel to Mexico to recruit seasonal farm workers to help farmers here harvest their crops this year.

The Washington Farm Labor Association aims to recruit about 3,000 workers at the job fair Monday in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. The goal is for those workers then to be accepted into a federal guest worker program for seasonal employment.

A growing number of farmers have turned to the so-called H-2A program to bring in foreign workers, despite longstanding complaints that it’s too cumbersome and expensive. Growers in the program generally must pay a higher wage and provide housing and transportation in and out of the country.

But many farmers say the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants has resulted in labor shortages, even as critics argue farmers could find workers if they paid higher wages.

Last year, 3,953 workers were brought into Washington through the H-2A program.

Felix Vargas of Pasco, a retired diplomat and former vice consul in Mexico who is now a volunteer senior adviser for the group, said he expects to see seasonal workers from last year return. But he told the Tri-City Herald for a story Tuesday that Washington needs 3,000 more workers at a minimum.

More than 5,000 prospective workers already have registered to attend the job fair in Mexico, Vargas said. The U.S. Consulate will vet the new applications and make sure those applying have ties that would make them return to Mexico.

The group will represent about 24 employers, mostly from the tree fruit industry.

Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, has said Washington ranks second in the nation for labor-intensive crops behind California.

Washington is the No. 1 producer of apples and is a top grower of sweet cherries. Both are labor intensive crops, and Washington farmers set record-high production values for both in 2011.

The value of Washington crops was $9.4 billion in 2011, up 14 percent from $8.25 billion a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Apples were the top commodity with a value of $1.83 billion, while the 2011 sweet cherry crop was valued at $534 million.

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