U.S. let in record 317,000 agricultural guestworkers

With American farmers increasingly relying on foreign agricultural laborers, the Labor Department approved 317,619 seasonal guestworkers during the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, up 15 percent from a year earlier, a farmworker advocacy group said on Tuesday.

It was the highest number of jobs ever approved for H-2A guestworker visas, said Farmworker Justice, a critic of the program. “Almost all employers’ applications were approved.” Florida, Georgia and California were the leading states for visa approvals, together accounting for one-third of them.

The H-2A visa program has grown in popularity at the same time that producers say it is harder to hire domestic farmworkers. Twice as many job slots were approved for guestworkers in 2021 as in 2016, which was roughly double the number of visas in 2012, when use of the program began to accelerate.

“All agricultural product categories experienced significant growth in H-2A employment, but the increase was most pronounced in product categories with high labor requirements and seasonal employment, such as fruit and tree nuts and vegetables and melons,” said an article in USDA’s Amber Waves magazine in discussing the rapid growth of the guestworker program since 2010.

The number of companies requesting guestworkers doubled since 2010. Mexico provides the lion’s share of the workers.

Farmworker Justice said abuses such as wage theft, sex discrimination and unsafe job conditions were rampant in the guestworker program partly because the workers could lose their jobs and be forced to leave the country if they complain. “Congress should pass immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of current undocumented farmworkers and their families,” it said.

H-2A visas were the only commonly used type of visa to increase in use during the pandemic year of 2020, according to State Department data. It counts visas that are actually issued and its figures are somewhat lower than the number of applications approved by the Labor Department.

“Over the last decade, when full fiscal year data is examined, the H-2A program has demonstrated steady year-over-year growth, averaging 14 percent each year,” said the American Farm Bureau Federation, which projected in August that H-2A approvals would top 300,000 this year.

The House passed a bipartisan farm labor reform bill in March that would grant legal status to undocumented farmworkers and modernize the H-2A temporary worker program. It included three-year visas for guestworkers and up to 60,000 visas for year-round work. The Senate has not voted on the bill.

A Farmworker Justice data portal that includes an interactive map showing H-2A job approvals by state is available here.