- The U.S. State Department suspended processing new applications in Mexico for the H-2A guest worker visa program to limit the spread of coronavirus starting March 18, Reuters reported. Growers said only returning seasonal workers would be allowed into the country.
- The government's decision is expected to disrupt this season's planting and harvesting. Fruit and vegetable farmers heavily rely on foreign workers with the visa, who can legally comprise 10% of their workforce, The Wall Street Journal reported.
- Dave Puglia, president of the Western Growers Association, told Reuters fruit and vegetable growers are relying more on such workers because there are no other options to get crops such as leafy greens, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and melons harvested, packed and shipped to consumers. "When the process is stopped midstream, it likely means those crews won’t be there exactly when they’re needed, if they get there at all. That means lost crops. That means lost food," he said.
This policy shift from the federal government has serious repercussions for produce growers, packers and distributors who need thousands of guest workers to grow and harvest fruits and vegetables every year.
More than 77,000 H-2A visas were approved in March and April of last year, which made up almost 28% of all such visas certified in 2019, according to U.S. Department of Labor data cited by Reuters. During the fiscal year ending September 30, U.S. farmers hired 188,262 workers from Mexico, The Journal reported, quoting State Department figures.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a statement the group has "serious concern" about the government's move.
"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," he said. "This threatens our ability to put food on Americans' tables."
Duvall said the Farm Bureau is in contact with USDA, the State Department and the White House and is urging them to find "safe, practical ways to admit farm laborers as emergency workers for visa purposes while still protecting public health." It's not clear how that goal might be accomplished, but it's possible the government could take emergency measures to open other avenues to acquire the needed help.
However, bringing in guest workers from other countries in Latin and South America doesn't seem very likely. Reuters reported the U.S. embassy in Honduras also suspended visa processing this week, and others in the region were expected to do the same.
Consumers could see fewer U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables in grocery stores later this year if there aren't enough workers available to plant and harvest them. And the crops that do make it to market may be more expensive because of added costs from having to pay workers higher rates to get the produce picked, processed and transported. There may be a ready workforce in the United States — Goldman Sachs is predicting there could be a record 2.25 million jobless claims this week — but they may demand higher wages, especially while many of the nation's businesses are closed to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Even after the coronavirus situation resolves, the ramifications of the H-2A visa suspension could last a lot longer and impact which crops farmers plant — and consequently what the public is able to purchase and consume.
"If this thing goes on for months, what planning decisions do you make from a business perspective? If farmers can’t plant and don’t have ag labor, it could create an awfully big issue later in the year," a manager of a Nevada farm told The Journal.
One proposed solution is for Congress to adopt a year-round agricultural guest worker visa program. Legislation was introduced earlier this month by U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida. The bill would place the program within the USDA rather than the U.S. Department Labor, and would require agricultural employers to first hire U.S. workers before they could petition for guest workers.
Yoho said in a release Congress has failed to create a common sense guest worker program for more than 30 years, and the result has been "a hodgepodge of programs" that don't meet producers' needs or those of migrants.
But since Congress is focused on coronavirus-related funding bills right now, it's probably going to take time before the guest worker visa issue will gain any traction. Meanwhile, produce farmers, processors and distributors are left wondering what will happen as the planting and harvesting season marches on.