As borders close, questions remain about H-2A program
Matt McClellan

As borders close, questions remain about H-2A program

After all visa processing was suspended last week, there appears to be hope for growers that depend on H-2A labor.

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March 23, 2020

President Donald Trump announced Friday that the U.S. would temporarily close its border with Canada and Mexico in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.

These restrictions began Saturday at midnight and will last “as long as they need [to last] to protect the American people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a Friday press conference.

Pompeo addressed the specifics of the measures the U.S. is taking, and crucially for the horticulture industry, potential exemptions for work visas.

“We’re working — we have real concern about H-2A visas, particularly agriculture workers that need to get across,” Pompeo said. “We’re going to make sure that we do everything we can to keep that part of our economic lifeblood working between our two countries. DHS and the State Department will work together. We want to make sure and keep commerce between Canada, the United States, and Mexico alive, functional, and prepared for the day that this economy bounces back like we expect that it will.”

This follows a roller-coaster week for growers that rely on the temporary visa program known as H-2A for labor.

Last week, the State Department suspended regular visa processing at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

The processing was not entirely halted. Guest workers from Mexico who previously came to the U.S. under the program can be granted interview waivers and allowed to return if their visas expired within the past 12 months. However, industry advocates critiqued the policy because the number of workers eligible to return this way was not enough to meet labor needs. 

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a group of trade groups including AmericanHort, wrote the Secretary of State a letter March 17 explaining how many sectors of the agriculture industry are reliant upon foreign labor and urging the federal government to process all H-2A applications as emergency visas. In fiscal year 2019, the Labor Department certified over 250,000 positions for temporary foreign farmworkers through the H-2A program, according to federal data.

In addition, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, (D-Calif.), led a bipartisan letter from House members asking Pompeo to reverse that policy.

By March 19, the State Department appeared to soften its stance. The department stated it was "well aware" of the program's importance and is reviewing all available options.

U.S. Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement regarding the State Department’s decision that the H-2A visa program be considered essential despite temporary closures of embassies and consulates abroad due to the spread of COVID-19.

“I was very concerned to learn that the H-2A visa program was gravely impacted by the temporary closure of our embassies and consulates around the world, particularly in Mexico, due to the growing coronavirus pandemic," he wrote in a statement. "I am glad that in just a matter of hours, the State Department announced that the H-2A visa program is essential to our domestic food supply during this critical time. I will continue to work with Secretary Pompeo and his staff as they work to process H-2A visas expeditiously.”