Update on the Impact of COVID-19 on Agricultural Labor

SaundersFarm068On March 16, 2020, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico announced that in response to COVID-19, routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services will be suspended starting March 18, 2020, until further notice. The suspension of services includes both visa interviews at the embassy and consulates as well as processing at the Centros de Atención a Solicitantes (CAS). This suspension will impact the arrival of H-2A workers to Virginia agricultural operations.

Visa activities for those who are “interview waiver eligible” will be prioritized by the State Department. Workers eligible for interview waivers include returning H-2A applicants whose visas have expired in the last 12 months and are now applying for the same visa classification and did not require a waiver the last time they applied for a visa. This clarification is an improvement from the original information received from the State Department but does not guarantee full workforce accessibility. It is also unclear at this time how many workers would qualify under this exception en route to Virginia.

Virginia Farm Bureau fully supports the administration’s efforts to protect the public during this health crisis. That said, the U.S. government’s decision to suspend visa processing in Mexico, starting March 18, to combat the spread of the virus will have a major impact on agriculture and our food supply down the road. During these trying times, an abundant food supply allows families to focus on the safety and well-being of their loved ones, rather than food security.

For farmers, the availability of adequate labor ensures the ability to plant, produce, and harvest a crop, and to ensure the viability of their operation. Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies over the previous 12 months were up 24% compared to prior-year levels. Farmers cannot remain viable and produce the food our citizens need if they do not have adequate labor.

To resolve this issue, the State Department must classify H-2A workers as emergency workers so they qualify to enter the country. Virginia Farm Bureau and AFBF are in constant contact with VDACS, USDA, the State Department, and the White House. We have urged them to find practical, safe 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, not today, but months down the road due to disruptions at the start of the season.

As this situation continues to develop, please keep an eye out for updates from VAFB, and do not hesitate to be in touch with questions. Additionally, the USDA established a website with information on H-2A: farmers.gov/manage/h2a and questions regarding H-2A can be sent to aglabor@usda.gov

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