The number of foreign workers employed under a temporary agricultural visa increased 4% between 2019 and 2020, despite the pandemic restricting international movement.
Under the H-2A program, agricultural employers may petition the government to issue temporary work visas provided they can prove that there aren’t enough US workers “who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.” Employers must also show that the temporary foreign workers will not negatively affect the wage or work conditions of similar US-based workers.
There were 213,394 H-2A visas issued in fiscal year 2020, up from 204,801 in fiscal year 2019. In 2007, there were 50,791 H-2A workers.
According to State Department data, the agricultural work visa was one of two visa categories to increase in numbers. Nonimmigrant visas allowing temporary entry to the US for reasons including tourism, schools, and work dropped 54% from 8.7 million in 2019 to 4 million in 2020.
Mexican workers are the majority of temporary agricultural workers. In 2020, 198,000 or 93% of H-2A workers came from Mexico. Three other countries sent more than 2,000 H-2A workers in 2020: South Africa (5,508 visas), Jamaica (4,659), Guatemala (2,123).
Employer applications for H-2A visas increased in recent years, according to the Department of Labor. In fiscal year 2020, employers filed 14,131 applications, up 87% from the 7,562 filed in 2015.
Employers in five states accounted for more than half of the positions certified by the Department of Labor in 2020: Florida, Georgia, Washington, California, and North Carolina.
In April 2020, the Department of Homeland Security issued a rule relaxing H-2A regulations due to the pandemic, stating that the move would “provide agricultural employers with an orderly and timely flow of legal foreign workers, thereby protecting the integrity of the nation's food supply chain and decreasing possible reliance on unauthorized aliens.” Parts of the temporary rule were extended through 2023.
In March, the House approved the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which provides a path to citizenship to long-time farmworkers here on an H-2A visa. The Senate has not voted on the bill.
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