The Department of State is taking steps to reduce delays in the processing of H-2A workers caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of State suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates on March 20. While some returning H-2A workers were processed after that date, industry leaders were alarmed about potential delays in H-2A worker availability.
The March 26 move by the Department of State should ease that potential bottleneck, especially for workers from Mexico, the source of the majority of U.S. guest agricultural workers.
According to a notice from the Department of State, the agency will:
- The Department of State, in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security, has authorized consular officers to expand the categories of H-2 visa applicants whose applications can be adjudicated without an in-person interview;
- Consular officers can, if they so choose, now waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning H-2 applicants who have no potential ineligibility;
- The Department of State also increased the period in which returning workers may qualify for an interview waiver. Applicants whose previous visas expired in the last 48 months (increased from 12 months), and who did not require a waiver of ineligibility the last time they applied, do not need to be interviewed in-person if they are applying for the same visa classification as their previous visa.
Government officials anticipate the “vast majority” of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview. The agency said the moves are temporary and taken because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will end by Dec. 31 this year.
Western Growers president and CEO Dave Puglia praised the action.
“The steps taken by Secretary Pompeo ease the flow of guest workers at a time when our farmers are redoubling their efforts to provide our nation with safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food,” Puglia said in a statement. “We are grateful to Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Perdue and all those in the Administration who listened to the needs of the agriculture community in the midst of our present crisis, and acted swiftly to implement this common-sense solution.”
Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, also applauded the move.
“We are grateful for the administration’s recognition of our part in keeping food moving from farm to table,” Stenzel said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the implementation and application of these revised regulations and ensure that the fresh fruit and vegetable industry has access to the workers that keep our food economy going during these uncertain times.”