The Homeland Security Department, reacting to what it called an “unprecedented crisis,” will allow farmers facing delays in getting approval for petitions for foreign agricultural labor to hire farmworkers holding H-2A visas and already in the United States.
How many farmers this will help is unknown.
The temporary final rule announced Wednesday comes after mounting pressure from agriculture groups for access to H-2A workers primarily to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables. The organizations said farmers might find themselves short-handed as the State Department maintains COVID-19 protections, such as social distancing, for embassy staff as it reviews new and returning H-2A applicants.
Segments of U.S. agriculture rely on a mix of largely undocumented workers living in the U.S. and seasonal workers admitted under the H-2A visa program into the country for limited periods. In 2019, U.S. agriculture employed an estimated 250,000 H-2A guest workers.
“This Administration has determined that continued agricultural employment, currently threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, is vital to maintaining and securing the country’s critical food supply chain. The temporary changes announced by USCIS provide the needed stability during this unprecedented crisis,” acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf said in a statement, referring to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Agriculture Department issued the Homeland Security release, which said the pool of H-2A workers who would normally return to their home countries after finishing contracted work can remain in the U.S. if employed under a new contract.
“Providing flexibility for H-2A employers to utilize H-2A workers that are currently in the United States is critically important as we continue to see travel and border restrictions as a result of COVID-19,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. Perdue added that his department will continue to work with the Homeland Security, Labor and State departments “to minimize disruption and make sure farmers have access to these critical workers necessary to maintain the integrity in our food supply.”
The Agriculture Department first publicly raised the possibility that current guest workers might be a quick source of labor in a March 19 joint statement with the Labor Department. The department estimated there were approximately 20,000 holders of H-2A and H-2B non-agricultural visas in the U.S. with expiring work contracts who potentially could be hired under new agreements.
Agricultural employers who have submitted a petition for H-2A workers and who hold a valid temporary labor certification will be eligible to hire visa holders in the U.S. after the USCIS receives the H-2A petition. Workers can’t start work any earlier than the start date on a submitted petition.
H-2A workers nearing the expiration of their three-year visas would be allowed to remain in the United States if hired under a new contract.