UPDATED 5:58 pm ET
MEXICO CITY — American farmers are bracing for major delays in the arrival of workers through the H-2A visa program after U.S. officials announced late Monday that the embassy in Mexico City and all U.S. consulates in Mexico will close, effective March 18, due to health and safety concerns caused by the global pandemic Covid-19.
Officials at the embassy did not say when the facilities might reopen. The H-2A program brings some 200,000 foreign workers to U.S. farms each year.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farmer advocacy group, told FERN that it fears this will dramatically reduce the number of H-2A workers, which could lead to food shortages and economic hardship for U.S. farmers. Farm Bureau officials also said they had been told by the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Mexico — the busiest in the country for H-2A visas — that “returning H-2A workers” will be given priority and that there will be few interviews for new workers.
The Farm Bureau pointed out that last year in the second quarter, April-June, 87,000 H-2A jobs were certified, making it the busiest time of year.
“The decision to halt visa application processing in Mexico will restrict the number of immigrant workers being allowed to enter the country. Under the new restrictions, American farmers will not have access to all of the skilled immigrant labor needed at a critical time in the planting season. This threatens our ability to put food on Americans’ tables,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“We fully support the administration’s efforts to protect the public during this health crisis. We are in constant contact with USDA, the State Department and the White House. We have urged them to find safe, practical ways to admit farm laborers as emergency workers for visa purposes while still protecting public health. Failing to do so will impact our ability to provide a healthy, affordable domestic food supply,” he said.
Late Tuesday, the consulate in Monterrey confirmed in a statement what the Farm Bureau and others had told FERN: “We intend to continue processing H2 cases but will need to modify our procedures in order to facilitate the social distancing recommended by health authorities. The U.S. Consulate General Monterrey will prioritize the processing of returning H-2 workers who are eligible for an interview waiver. Because limited interview appointments will be available, we may cancel some first-time applicant appointments that have already been scheduled. The closures will suspend all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services, which is especially pertinent to the H-2A visa workers. Before these workers could travel to the U.S., they had to be interviewed at an embassy or consulate.”
The closures come at the start of growing season in many states, and the implications for U.S. farmers are potentially huge. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that over the last four years, nearly 40 percent of H-2A contracts required workers to arrive in the U.S. between the months of March and April. Many workers travel to northern states, like Washington, where the growing season is just getting underway.
According to the USDA, farms across the country are already experiencing a severe labor shortage, which is reflected in the growing demand seen for the H-2A visa program. In 2005, just 48,000 farmworker jobs were certified by the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2018 that number had grown to more than 242,000.
Florida, Georgia, Washington and California fill the most jobs through the H-2A program.
Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’, said: “The exact impact will vary based on what the individual grower is producing, how many H-2A workers they need, how many of those are returning workers, and how long the visa interview restrictions are in place. As a result, it is too soon to say what the aggregate effects may be. However, it is an important reminder that food production and distribution need to continue even during times of crisis.”
He said it was too early to discuss the details of a possible workaround for these visas. “Harvest for most of our members’ crops is months away … As for wages, H-2A workers are paid above market rates [a minimum of $15.83 per hour in Washington] and any domestic worker who applies must be hired so paying higher wages to try and attract more workers is already policy and practice. However, when the labor market has been so strong in recent years there has still been a shortage of people willing to do this work.”