U.S. restricts visas for farmworkers, raising concerns about food supply

"This could have a very serious impact on the flow of fresh fruits and vegetables to American stores," the head of a farmers group said.
Image: Migrant farm workers with H-2A visas walk to take a break in King City, Calif., in 2017.
Migrant farm workers with H-2A visas walk to take a break in King City, California, in 2017.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Suzy Khimm

To reduce coronavirus transmission, the federal government has stopped conducting visa interviews for temporary farmworkers from Mexico who want to work in the United States — a move that could disrupt America's supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, industry groups say.

The temporary visa program for farmworkers, known as H-2A, is 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. But federal officials told growers that they would stop processing H-2A visa applications from new workers, according to USA Farmers, a group representing H-2A employers, and the Western Growers Association, which represents growers in states including California and Arizona.

A growing number of U.S. farms are relying on H-2A workers as the rural workforce has aged and immigration enforcement has ramped up. 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. The vast majority come from Mexico.

"An interruption to the processing of agricultural worker visas will undoubtedly cause a significant disruption to the U.S. food supply," a coalition of agriculture trade groups wrote in a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging the federal government to process all H-2A applications as emergency visas. Two House Republicans also sent a letter to Pompeo voicing concerns.

The State Department said that it was "reviewing all possible options" and emphasized that it was still making H-2A visa applications a priority. "We are well aware of the importance of the H-2 program to the economy and food security of the United States," a State Department official said in a statement.

Despite empty shelves and panic-buying, there are not broad signs of disruption to America's food supply chain because of the coronavirus; over half of all fresh fruit and a third of fresh vegetables are now imported, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

But the new restrictions on H-2A visas could leave West Coast farmers in the lurch just as they are preparing to harvest lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, celery and strawberries, said Dave Puglia, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association.

"This could have a very serious impact on the flow of fresh fruits and vegetables to American stores in the next several months," said Puglia, who estimated the change could prevent tens of thousands of temporary farmworkers from coming to Western states — about 50 percent of the total H-2A workforce. "It's the only life raft for growers who are short on labor."

March and April are the busiest time of the year for the H-2A program, as it is planting season in most parts of the country, said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, which represents growers.

"If this continues, we will have a worker shortage that will ultimately filter up through the supply chain to the consumer," Marsh said. "The last thing that anyone wants is to have food shortages in grocery stores."

Industry groups are pushing for the federal government to prevent such outcomes by finding a way to conduct the H-2A visa interviews without putting any staff at risk, such as doing the interviews remotely or through glass, Puglia said.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The U.S. Agriculture Department said that it was working with the State Department to "ensure minimal disruption" in the processing of H-2A applications. "This administration is doing everything possible to maintain continuity of this critically important program," a spokesperson said.

The changes are not restricted to Mexico: In response to the pandemic, the State Department has suspended routine visa processing in all countries with a Travel Advisory of level 2, 3 or 4, which includes Brazil, Guatemala, China and Germany, the agency said.

While the economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus will mean more Americans searching for work, industry groups are skeptical that they would replace the H-2A workers that farmers are counting on, given the temporary nature of the work in rural, often remote locations. Employers are only allowed to apply for H-2A visas after searching for local workers to fill the seasonal jobs

While it's possible that domestic workers could take some of those jobs, "it's not something we've ever been able to count on," Puglia said.