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A good apple crop, but pickers delayed by U.S. Immigration officials

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North Country apple growers say it's been a good season, but they had to fight U.S. Immigration officials to harvest their crop. For decades, orchards in northern New York have relied on experienced workers from Jamaica. Many of these laborers make the trip from the Caribbean several times a year to prune trees, tend them throughout the season and pick the fruit.

Debbie Everett is part of the family that has owned and run the Everett Orchards, near Plattsburgh, since the Revolutionary War. She says problems getting H2A visas for farm workers delayed apple picking even as the fruit was ripe, ready and nearly falling from the trees:

"The remainder of our workers just came in Tuesday," she said. "It was pretty touch and go there. But they are here. That's the good news."

As Jonathan Brown reports, an apparent misunderstanding by U.S. Immigration officials nearly prevented the Jamaican workers from making their harvest trip to the North Country.

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Debbie Everett says the bond between apple growers in northern New York and apple pickers from Jamaica has grown beyond a simple business arrangement.

"We’ve had one gentleman that’s come for 25 years and it’s very much like family. And we just so hope we can continue working with our Jamaican friends."

To get here, the apple pickers have to jump through some bureaucratic hoops. They pay a department within the Jamaican government for help getting H2A visas and health care coverage. This department essentially acts as a contractor that gathers the workers and gets them to New York farms.

But the U.S. sets a limit on what contractors can charge for these services. North Country Congressman Bill Owens says U.S. Immigration officials feared Jamaican bureaucrats were taking advantage of the apple pickers:

"I don’t believe that the fees being charged by the Jamaican government are inappropriate. But it was misconstrued by the U.S. government and I believe it was an error in evaluation or analysis done by the U.S. government."

To resolve the issue and allow the orchard workers entry to the U.S., Owens says officials in Washington had to trust assurances from the Jamaican government:

"Basically, what the State Dept and the DHS and the U.S. Dept of Labor agreed to do was accept what was being said by the Jamaican governmental agency that the fees they were being charged were reasonable and were being applied for the benefit of the workers."

Grower Debbie Everett says her orchard got H2A visas for groups of workers three times earlier this year. She says problems with Immigration officials only surfaced after requesting the same visas for pickers to work during the harvest:

"It has not been ironed out. It is still being worked on. It’s almost like they’ve put a band aid on it for the time being."

Representative Owens says the problem in Washington has to be fixed so the orchards and pickers can keep working together, without the kind of recent delays that almost derailed the harvest:

"We’re going to get through this growing season and then we’re going to go back probably in November or December and meet with all the government agencies involved to make sure that we smooth this out and if we have to do some legislation then we’ll work on the legislation."

For now, Everett says it’s good to have her “family” of apple pickers back in the orchard:

"We’re just so thrilled that we’ve got the men that we have. We are so grateful to have this crew. Like I said, they’re like family at this point."

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