The federal government is making it a little easier for farmers to get foreign guestworkers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The State Department announced on March 26 that U.S. consular staff can waive the requirement that farmworker visa applicants go through in-person interviews.
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue said the move would streamline the application process and provide steady labor for the ag industry.
Routine visa services have been suspended at U.S. diplomatic installations worldwide, causing ag groups to worry about the availability of labor just as the growing season was about to ramp up.
But because food security is a national security priority, the State Department said Thursday that diplomatic posts would continue processing ag guestworker visas as much as they could.
Under the temporary rules announced Thursday, consular offices can choose to waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning farmworkers who have no apparent or potential ineligibility.
Workers whose previous visa expired in the last 48 months, and who did not require a waiver of ineligibility the last time, do not need to be interviewed in person if they are applying in the visa classification they used before.
“We anticipate the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview,” the State Department said.
The agency cautioned that consular resources and local restrictions can vary. The U.S.' Mission Mexico issued 88% of farmworker visas in fiscal year 2019.
USDA and the Department of Labor also say they have identified 20,000 people with agricultural and nonfarm work visas who are already in the U.S. and whose contracts expire soon, meaning they might be available to transfer to another employer. To explore this possibility, go to farmers.gov/manage/h2a
Farmers have long complained that the visa program for ag guestworkers is cumbersome and doesn't work well for year-round operations such as dairies and mushroom houses.