By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- Farmers who rely on H-2A workers received a little more relief from the State Department late Thursday with an announcement that U.S. consulates will expand the group of H-2 applicants who can get visas without an in-person interview.
Agricultural groups and farmers who employ guest workers have been concerned since the State Department announced March 20 that it was suspending all non-emergency visa applications. Thursday's announcement opens the door for more H-2A and H-2B workers to continue entering the country for work. Embassies and consulate offices shut down such visa processing to eliminate direct contact with applicants because of the coronavirus.
The State Department noted, "The H-2 program is essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority. Therefore, we intend to continue processing H-2 cases as much as possible, as permitted by post resources and local government restrictions."
The decision allows consulates to waive the visa interview requirements for both returning workers and first-time applicants, the State Department said. Also, prior H-2 workers who have held visas going back 48 months also can apply again without an interview as well. The State Department said this change should ensure the vast majority of H-2 applicants will be reviewed without needing an interview.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue credited both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security for making the H-2 changes.
"Temporarily waiving in-person interviews for H-2 visa applicants streamlines the application process and helps provide steady labor for the agriculture sector during this time of uncertainty," Perdue said in a statement. "H-2 labor is vital to the economy and food security of America -- our farmers and producers depend on these workers to continue to feed and clothe the world."
The H-2A program brought in roughly 257,000 workers last year, of which about 90% come from Mexico. They work on nine-month visas during that time.
Organizations representing largely fruit and vegetable growers that rely on H-2A workers praised the new waivers, saying the decision will help ensure food security.
"We are grateful for the administration's recognition of our part in keeping food moving from farm to table," said Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association. "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."
Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers, credited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "for taking a practical approach" to meeting the work needs of farmers while also protecting State Department personnel.
"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. "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."
Last week, USDA and the Department of Labor also set up a process to allow nearly 20,000 H-2A and H-2B workers already in the country to extend their contracts and transfer to different employers.
Details on that program can be found at www.farmers.gov/h2a
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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