Visa Halt Disrupts Mexican Worker FlowBy Jan Hogewoning | Mon, 03/23/2020 - 12:59
California farmers continue to press the US Department of Agriculture and the US State Department for a reasonable plan as they fear they will not have enough labor for harvests starting in a few weeks. The harvesting season is shifting from the dry desert land of Arizona and South East California to the California Central Valley, where fruits such as strawberries and vegetables like broccoli and lettuce will soon be ready for reaping.
Last week the US government decided to shut down all non-essential travel from Mexico to the US. While employment is considered an essential category, US consulates along the border are thinning out their personnel and services. These consulates are responsible for the processing of H-2A agricultural guest visas that employers in the US arrange for the much-needed Mexican seasonal worker population. Last year, there were 31,967 H-2A workers in the US, with 24,661 of them harvesting strawberries, grapes and other berries. 13,995 workers were involved in picking other fruits and vegetables, demonstrating the importance of the H-2A program in supplying the California Central Valley. While they represent a fraction of the state’s 400,000 plus agricultural workers, Mexican workers are essential in weather and time-sensitive harvests.
Consulates have put all new visa applications on hold, also waiving in person interviews for previous visa holders. The latter group is still able to enter the US, but they represent only half of the usual guest workers, according to industry trade groups.
Two potential scenarios could greatly worsen the situation. Firstly, if communities supplying these workers are hit by COVID-19, they could be denied full access. Secondly, California already has shelter-in-place ordinances as the outbreak has been particularly serious in this state. While farms have sanitary measures in place to prevent water-borne diseases from accumulating on crops, the industry could face stricter measures that could hinder the entire harvesting process.
For now, the main concern is the processing of visas. David Scaroni, Vice President of Fresh Harvest, has stated this could have an immediate domino effect on domestic food supply for the US. The impact will be significant, even if the government comes up with more short-term provisions or an emergency declaration. While the US government is working on a US$1.9 trillion relief package, farms will not be receiving the harvesting hands they need in the short term. Farms have already been dealing with worker shortages for years, but this is an unprecedented situation. Meanwhile, thousands of seasonal Mexican harvesters will be left without an opportunity to earn their wage.