State Department agrees to process more farm worker visas

Farm groups said they needed the laborers for planting or Americans would see "bare shelves in grocery stories"

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed the change in approach Friday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed the change in approach Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 27, 2020 at 12:14pm

The State Department will start processing more applicants seeking H-2A temporary guest worker visas, raising the likelihood that U.S. farmers will have foreign workers in time for spring planting.

“We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2A applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview,” according to a State Department announcement on its travel website.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the breakthrough Thursday night and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a confirmation Friday.

Pompeo is authorizing consular officers to expand the categories of H-2A visa applicants who can be processed without an in-person interview. Officers are now given leeway to waive the interview for first-time and returning H-2A workers “who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility,” the State Department website says.

In-person interviews will no longer be required for H-2A applicants with past H-2A visas that expired in the last 48 months if they did not require a waiver of ineligibility at that time.   

Perdue, U.S. agriculture groups and farm-state lawmakers had been pressing the State Department to resume processing H-2A applicants after the department announced it would stop processing all immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications, including those for H-2A work visas, on March 18 as embassies imposed COVID-19 restrictions to protect staff.

Later that week, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and its consulates said they would give priority to processing workers who have held H-2A visas in the past 12 months and who did not require in-person interviews. About 90 percent of H-2A seasonal workers employed by U.S farmers come from Mexico.

The influential American Farm Bureau Federation said it was unclear how much and how quickly the limited procedures could deliver workers.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which represents agribusiness employers, warned of “bare shelves in grocery stores” if the visa issue was not resolved. Segments of U.S. agriculture rely on a mix of largely undocumented workers and the seasonal workers admitted into the United States for limited periods. In 2019, U.S. agriculture employed an estimated 250,000 H-2A workers. 

Senators and House members from both parties with agricultural constituents sent letters urging Pompeo, and the Homeland Security and Labor departments to find a way to broaden the visa review.

Forty-two House members sent a bipartisan letter on March 19 urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to act quickly and decisively to ensure that the U.S. agricultural sector can continue to provide a safe and robust domestic food supply during this national emergency by providing clarifying guidance regarding visa processing for H-2A workers.”