Figuring out how to get enough workers to keep the American agriculture industry going has always been hard, and it’s much harder in the age of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the embassy and consulates in Mexico were shut down due to the coronavirus. Those facilities were needed to process the H-2A visa, which provides hundreds of thousands of temporary agricultural workers to American farms. This, obviously, prompted some panic about how American farmers—already understaffed—would survive.
A quick attempt was made to facilitate the H-2A holders’ movement within the US, but with tens of thousands waiting in Mexico—which provides by far the most temporary foreign farmworkers—that was not seen as sufficient. Clearly some method of getting those farmworkers to the US was needed; they are essential workers in the most basic of ways, providing the food this country needs.
This week, the State Department decided to temporarily waive in-person applications for H-2A and H-2B (the latter is non-agricultural) workers. A USDA spokesperson wrote in an email, “the Department has advised that H-2 applications are ‘mission critical’ and should continue to be processed to the extent permitted by post resources and local government restrictions.”
Essentially, this expands the ability of farmworkers to get approved without the need for an in-person interview, which at this point are not possible to have. Now, any H-2A or H-2B worker who has been interviewed within the past four years will be able to reapply for the same visa they had before. This should cover most of these temporary workers; a USDA spokesperson said, “We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview.” This waiver will last for one year, then we’ll go back to normal (assuming the world goes back to normal as well).
H-2A and H-2B applications can be done digitally, so if these applicants can get access to a computer, they can send in their applications. It’s unclear whether the closing of the embassy and consulates, in addition to the travel restrictions and general panic of the pandemic, will drastically reduce the number of temporary farmworkers. But at least it will be possible to get those much-needed workers here.