For Mexico’s migrant farmworkers, virus risk may be worth it for what they’ll earn in U.S.

MEXICO CITY — The global pandemic feels distant to 31-year-old Manuel Alejandro Lopez Delgado in his town of some 4,000 people in the state of Sinaloa, along the Gulf of California. There’s been just one confirmed case of coronavirus in the state, and that was four hours away, in the city of Culiacan. 

But in the next two weeks, Lopez, along with three other workers from his town, will be traveling to the U.S. to work in the apple orchards in Washington State. The three-day bus journey will take them to the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in America. 

Lopez has heard about the pandemic in the news, but he was unaware of the situation in Washington, where the outbreak in the U.S. started and where more than 1,000 cases have been confirmed. “It is really scary, but also the economy [in Mexico] isn’t very good. Anyone who can leave does,” he said. 

The reason is simple: Lopez can earn up to $15 an hour in the U.S., more than double Mexico’s daily minimum wage. 

He’s concerned about the possibility of exposure to the virus during his journey, but also once he’s on the farm working. He says there will be about 50 workers in each housing unit, all from Mexico. “Who knows what things are like where they come from,” he said.

March and April are typically the busiest months for Mexico’s migrant farmworkers, who begin arriving then on U.S. farms across the country. But the H-2A visa process, which connects workers like Lopez to farmers in America, came to a halt when the U.S. embassy and consulates in Mexico announced on Monday that they would be closing due to concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In an attempt to keep employees healthy while still prioritizing the arrival of H-2A workers, the consulate in Monterrey — the country’s busiest for temporary work visas — announced it would be waiving the visa interview process for returning H-2A workers. At the same time, since the number of interviews will be limited, appointments for new workers might be canceled. That’s caused serious concern for both U.S. farmers and Mexican workers, who rely on the H-2A visa program for their livelihoods. 

Each year, more than 250,000 seasonal farm jobs in the U.S. are filled by H-2A workers. Because it’s still early in the growing season, there are currently few H-2A workers in the country. Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, says this has allowed farmers to provide more spacious housing. Some have even offered to quarantine workers who fear they’ve been exposed. That will be far more difficult in the coming months, as the growing season gets underway and around 87,000 H-2A jobs are filled.

The threat to farmworker visas has spurred an outcry from the U.S. ag sector.  

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which represents major farm-sector employers, urged the State Department to “recognize all H-2A — as well as any other non-immigrant visa petition involving an agricultural worker — visa consular processing functions as ‘essential’ and direct the U.S. Consulates to treat all agricultural worker appointments as emergency visa services.” Otherwise, the letter said, the visa interruption would “cause a significant disruption to the U.S. food supply.”

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat whose district includes the Salinas Valley, one of the country’s leading agricultural regions, is also urging Secretary Pompeo to ensure that the necessary visas get processed. 

“A complete suspension on visa processing for H-2A workers will have a devastating impact on the national food supply and a disproportionate effect on the national agriculture economy,” Panetta wrote in a letter that will be sent to Pompeo on Thursday. “In 2017, agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.053 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), a 5.4 percent share. In 2018, 22 million full- and part-time jobs were related to the agricultural and food sectors — 11 percent of total U.S. employment. These individuals not only contribute to the national economy but also guarantee our nation’s food security.”

But the problems for farmworkers like Lopez, and the farmers who employ them, won’t end even if the visa situation gets resolved. Protecting workers during the pandemic has become a top concern for farmworker advocates like Marsh. He’s heard from plenty of American farmers who are concerned about delays in the arrival of their H-2A workforce, but more important, he said, is how they can make sure everyone stays healthy once they arrive.  

Employers are considering that as they put their workers to work to make sure that they’re able to separate them in whatever they’re doing,” he said. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a reminder of America’s reliance on migrant workers, primarily from Mexico. Allison Crittenden, from the American Farm Bureau Association, says the consulate closures have spurred concerns about how potential workforce shortages will not only affect American farmers but the U.S. food supply chain. 

“We will be creating a crisis in our grocery stores if we don’t have access to the workforce that we need,” she said.  

While it’s still unclear how many workers in Mexico will be denied visas due to the closures, Crittenden says the program has already been compromised; the U.S. embassy in Jamaica closed last week and will suspend visa services, blocking the travel of H-2A workers from that country.  

For advocates of migrant workers, the pandemic has highlighted existing flaws in the guestworker program. Evy Peña, with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante in Mexico City, says workers like Lopez will risk traveling to unsafe areas for the economic opportunity. Once in the U.S. they may be reluctant to request sick leave or even a trip to the doctor for fear that it might jeopardize their job.

“When your immigration status and job security depends on a single employer, that puts workers at tremendous risk for abuse,” she said.

Peña says the lack of government oversight means there’s little to ensure workers’ rights are protected. She says social distancing for migrant farmworkers is “impossible,” as housing conditions are often overcrowded, unsanitary and in some cases, lack access to electricity and running water.

“The most common complaint we get from workers is deplorable housing conditions,” she said.

Further complicating the situation, research by her organization shows that many workers in Mexico are scammed by middlemen into paying up to thousands of dollars for their H-2A visa. She worries about the indebted workers who will now be denied entrance into the U.S. due to the pandemic.

“This means that their investments are basically lost and they’ve paid for jobs that they’ll never even start,” she said.

On the other end of this equation, American farmers had plenty to worry about long before the arrival of Covid-19. Andrew Sundquist is the owner of Sundquist Farms in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where he grows apples, cherries, and pears on 1,800 acres. He says that for the last few years he’s seen stagnant fruit prices and increasing labor costs. 

“I think a lot of farmers weren’t sleeping even before this coronavirus thing hit,” he said.  

In Yakima, there have been just five confirmed cases of coronavirus. Sundquist says his kids are home from school and it generally feels like a quarantine, though things aren’t as serious as in nearby Seattle. He’s contracted H-2A workers for the last seven years, and this season he’s expecting 80 workers, 90 percent of whom are people who have worked for him in previous years. He’s confident he’ll have nearly all the labor he needs, but he’s still bracing for delays. An unusually warm winter has brought an earlier growing season, which means farmers like him hope to bring in their H-2A workers earlier than they usually would.

Once workers do arrive, Sundquist says they’ll be spread out among the housing units, even though it’s more expensive to do it that way. He’ll also take the same precautions as any other business — sick workers will be encouraged to stay home, trips to the doctor will be made when necessary, and they’ll have meetings to talk about proper sanitation. He’s confident he’ll be able to manage the health of his workers. 

“We’re not like an office environment; you’re out in the sunshine,” he said. “It’s probably the best place to be.”  

Back in his small town in Sinaloa, Manuel Alejandro Lopez Delgado agrees. Last year, when he went to Washington State on an H-2A visa, the farm he worked for took the issue of worker health very seriously. But more important, he’s relying on the income from this season to repair his family home and buy land. No matter the health risk, he and the other men from his town won’t miss their chance to work in the U.S. 

“Wages here are so low,” he said. “We all consider this a great opportunity to work because they pay so well.”