Leobardo Sandoval, 34, an H-2A visa guestworker from Mexico, thins Bartlett pears at the McDougall and Sons Barden Hills Orchard in Monitor, Wash. The U.S. State Department has decided to waive the interview requirement for most H-2A guestworkers from Mexico.
Farmers and orchard owners across the country are breathing a little easier now that more H-2A workers will be able to cross the Mexican border.
The U.S. State Department on Thursday expanded the number of foreign agricultural workers whose visa applications can be processed without an in-person interview.
After first suspending “non-essential” visa processing in Mexico due to coronavirus, the agency said it would prioritize processing for returning H2A workers whose visas expired within the last 12 months by giving them an interview waiver.
Yesterday, it broadened those waivers to include new workers and returning workers whose visas had expired in the past 24 months.
“We first went from thinking we had zero workers to having some workers,” Allison Crittenden, American Farm Bureau Federation director of congressional relations, said.
Now, with yesterday’s announcement, the bulk of the H-2A workforce should be able to come into the U.S., she said on Friday.
“Since we expanded who can get a waiver, we have broadened our access,” she said.
This is a critical time for American agriculture. Harvest is already taking place in areas with warmer climates. In other areas, fields are being prepared and farmers are getting ready to plant, and it’s critical to have those H-2A workers to plant and cultivate and to be able to harvest the crops down the road, she said.
“We are grateful we will have broader access to the H-2A work force than the first announcement (of limited waivers) suggested,” she said.
H-2A workers in 2019 totaled 258,000, about 20% of the farm work force, and they are essential, she said, adding the other 80% of the farm work force is primarily documented and undocumented migrant workers.
Historically, roughly 66% of H-2A workers come through in the second and third quarters of year, so most will cross the border in the next six months, she said.
She’s gotten good reports of border crossings in the past two days, with even new workers coming through, she said.
“From anecdotal stories, it seems to be working so far,” she said.
Social distancing at U.S. consulates and embassies was the major hurdle, preventing in-person interviews required for processing H-2A visas. The waiver would seem to remedy that, she said.
“We’ll see how it works as we see more H-2A workers over the next few months,” she said.
Requests for comment from the Western Growers Association were unanswered on Friday.
The expanded waiver criteria also apply to H-2B nonagricultural foreign workers, some of whom work in related areas such as landscaping and food processing.
The State Department anticipates the majority of qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview.
The measures are temporary and will end no later than Dec. 31.
Posted By: Capital Press
Posted On: 3/27/2020