While it may not have been the deciding factor in resolving a crisis involving Jamaican apple pickers, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's fondness for Champlain Valley McIntosh apples didn't hurt.
"The old Hillary connections helped out," said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. "That's her favorite apple. We send a box of Macs down to the State Department on a regular basis. They come right out of Clinton County every month or so."
Allen explained that the crisis involving Jamaican pickers and local orchardists' difficulties in getting them this year stemmed from Homeland Security concerns when the H-2A migrant-picker program passed to State Department classification under the Obama administration.
"The problem is just the bureaucracy and the layers you have to go through to reach your ultimate goal," Allen said. Despite the fact the H-2A program has been working well for more than 50 years as the only legal foreign-picker program in the United States, hurdles still come up.
He said the State Department recategorized the Jamaican Center for Labor Organization, run by the government in Kingston, Jamaica, that was set up to facilitate the H-2A program as a labor contractor, a non-government agency.
"It threw them in a whole new category," Allen said. Now, U.S. Customs and other agencies need clarification and more information to comply with their rules. So, growers' applications were sent back with requests for more information relating to all the deductions that are taken from migrants' pay, such as for Social Security, health care, transportation, etc.
"Most of those questions, the growers couldn't answer," Allen said, adding that it was information about the workers that the growers had no way of knowing.
"The JCLO and the State Department thought they had a solution a month ago, and it never materialized," Allen said, explaining that workers heading for New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia were affected. "It really hit the fan Thursday of last week."
A full-court press then occurred involving the two New York U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy; North Country Rep. Bill Owens; other congressmen from apple-producing districts; the New York Farm Bureau; and the Apple Association.
"All of their staffs got involved," Allen said. "Without all this help, we wouldn't be here today."
The bottom line, he said, was that a resolution was obtained with Customs and Immigration this past Wednesday night. The only downside is it involves a lot of paperwork, he said, "like a small novel."
Allen said it all has to do with Homeland Security tightening the borders and scrutinizing everybody.
He said the Hillary connection helped at the State Department. They told her "if we don't get our pickers, her favorite apples would be lying on the ground," Allen joked.
He said it really helped to have the leadership of the two senior powerhouse senators, Schumer and Leahy, with their connections, and Gillibrand on the Agriculture Committee. "There were some heated phone calls between Schumer and Leahy and the Customs and Immigration Service," Allen said. "It was a stretch to get them to bend."
Allen said now it's a matter of getting everyone moving. "The problem is to get those pickers on the airplanes," he said. "Time is of the essence."