The pandemic has caused stress for many people in the United States on visas, but for those on H-2A agricultural visas the risk of being sent home can impact the food security of an entire nation.
People on various types of visas have steadily held their breath since the pandemic began with fear they might have to uproot their lives and go back to their home countries but employees here on agricultural visas so far have been protected.
An H-2A visa is designed for temporary and seasonal agricultural work, typically used by those working on farms and other agricultural productions, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. These visas often help to fill a void in agricultural work that typically is difficult to fill with American workers.
The American food supply has become dependent on these visa workers who provide their services at farms across the country.
“I think if you look at it, immigrant labor is the largest sector that harvests the food everyone eats in America,” said Amy Hicks, owner of Amy’s Garden in Charles City. “Immigrant labor is doing the work and it’s incredibly important to protect those visas and give them an opportunity.”
Hicks employs four people on agricultural visas, which make up most of her workforce. When the employees were first traveling from Mexico in March, Hicks said the situation with the pandemic and crossing international borders made the situation very nerve-racking.
Luckily her employees were able to come across the border a few days when restrictions tightened but if they hadn’t, Hicks said her farm would have been drastically impacted.
“They’re incredibly important because of their knowledge and agricultural background,” she said. “It’s hard to find people to work outside in this heat and willing to do…the back-breaking work that vegetable farming requires.”
Her agricultural employees will remain working on the farm through the season, which ends in mid-October. But there is worry about what could change with these visas during the pandemic.
Those in the U.S. on H-2A visas currently are protected under a temporary ruling from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which deemed the visas as essential worker positions in April.
But Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said visa workers are aware the ruling could change.
“It’s absolutely something that could change from one moment to the other just as [President Donald Trump’s] administration has gone after other specific categories of visas, they could easily target the H-2A program,” he said. “It would be highly counterproductive to do that though.”
Loweree said there hasn’t been any indication from the administration that there will be changes to the program’s protections but the past few months have shown how quickly that could change.
The overall national visa numbers in June have remained low, Loweree said, but H-2A visas are making up a substantial portion. Between October 2019 and May 2020, the total number of visas issued has declined 95 percent but agricultural visas are still being issued because they’re so significant to the national food supply.
“One of the things the [coronavirus] pandemic has made abundantly clear is just how delicate our livelihoods are here in the U.S.,” he said. “And our food supply is by no means an exception.”
Once the agricultural workers are here, it’s also important to protect them from a global health emergency.
When agricultural workers come to the U.S. to work on farms, they typically are housed in a group home on the property, such as at Amy’s Garden. Hicks said the four workers are housed on her property and the farm has taken great care to protect their health. Typically, the employees haven’t left the farm much since coming to the U.S. and Hicks arranged to have all their necessary items delivered to them.
“They’ve just adapted a little bit to being extra careful,” Hicks said. “And they’re well aware of the pandemic so they don’t go out except when absolutely necessary.”
While those workers are protected as much as possible from the virus while they’re here, they’re aware they have to return to Mexico at the end of the season, where the pandemic has also caused a lot of issues.
Loweree said those employees shouldn’t have any issues returning home even if border restrictions are tight but there’s also no way of telling what will happen with this pandemic. In the meantime, farms who rely on these employees face a certain level of fear knowing that visa restrictions could change and leave farms without a strong arm of their workforce.
“It’s difficult to speculate in this moment in time,” Loweree said. “This is certainly a moment of tremendous uncertainty for all of us and farmers are no exception…We didn’t know a few months ago where we would be now, so it’s hard to say where we will be in the not-so-distant future.”
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