The U.S. State Department and USDA were quick to respond to the critical need for foreign agricultural guestworkers after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced on Monday it would suspend processing routine H-2A visas for border crossings to limit the spread of coronavirus.
By Tuesday, the agencies announced an interview waiver would be granted to H-2A workers returning to the U.S. within the same visa classification whose visas have expired in the last 12 months. They would have to have not used a visa waiver the last time they applied, Allison Crittenden, AFBF director of congressional relations, said during a press conference with reporters on Wednesday.
The agencies will be prioritizing those applications, but the State Department hasn’t said how many people fall into that category, she said.
More than 90% of H-2A workers come from Mexico, and more than half are expected to come in over the next six months, she said.
Some 5,000 H-2A workers are already at work in Washington state, mostly for pruning fruit trees. They have arrived since Jan. 1.
“So it’s critical that we maintain that access,” she said.
Things are changing day by day, and AFBF doesn’t know what complications incoming workers might face due to the coronavirus, she said.
“But what we do know is that our grocery stores won’t have the food that consumers are buying so readily if we don’t have the farm workers in place to plant those crops and eventually harvest them,” she said.
Farm Bureau has been conveying its concerns about the coronavirus to USDA, the White House and Congress and at all levels of government, Zippy Duvall, AFBF president, said.
The coronavirus is causing damage in the industry, but Farm Bureau is focused on what farmers are facing today — and labor is the biggest issue, he said.
“This is one problem we’ve got to fix or four to six months down the road everyone will feel the effects of what could happen if we don’t get the workers here to get it done,” he said.
Slightly more than a quarter of a million H-2A-visa positions were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2019. Washington state had 26,226 positions.
Farm Bureau is also focused on the current supply chain and keeping supplies moving — inputs to farms, production from farms and through processing and inspections to consumers.
Asked what agriculture will need in the way of government assistance, Farm Bureau officials said that’s not yet known and those conversations will come later.
“At this particular point, we’re still in the process of reacting to sort of getting our arms around this outbreak that is occurring and making sure that we’re keeping the country fed,” Dale Moore, AFBF executive vice president, said.
Right now, agriculture needs workers and a functioning supply chain, he said.
“Right now, our focus is on making sure we solve the problems that face agriculture as far as their production end of it rather than the damage that is being done,” Duvall said.
The current situation raises the importance of having a program to bring agricultural workers to the U.S. because Americans just don’t want to do this work anymore, Duvall said.