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Calls to Halt the H-2 Visa Programs Are Uninformed and Threaten U.S. Food Security

14 May

News that the U.S. economy lost record 20.5 million jobs in April during the coronavirus pandemic has led some to call for the immediate suspension of the country’s temporary work visas programs without a full understanding of the essential role these programs play in addressing chronic labor shortages, particularly in food production and food distribution.   

The American worker’s interest in agriculture and food-packing jobs has been low and inelastic for decades. Even in times of record unemployment, most U.S. workers are not interested in working on a farm or in meat-packing plant, even if paid significantly more than the minimum wage.  This is generally due to the repetitive, physically demanding, and often seasonal nature of this type of work, which is often performed in remote, rural locations and under extreme weather conditions. As evidence of the average U.S. worker’s disinterest in these jobs, government agencies estimate that 70% of farmworkers and nearly 30% percent of meat and poultry workers are foreigners, and that between 50 to 75% of farm labor force in the United States is undocumented. 

The April 22, 2020 Presidential Executive Order on immigration banned the issuance of employment-based immigrant visas except for healthcare professionals. The Order’s reference to futur“additional measures that could be taken is widely assumed to be significant new restrictions on existing non-immigrant work visa programs. Inspired by this order, some individuals have written open letters calling for an end to the H-2A and H-2B programs. It is essential to understand that these temporary programs do not deprive U.S. workers of employment. In fact, before being authorized to use the H-2A and H-2B program, employers are required to advertise across multi-state regions and in nationally circulated online job databases. Only after providing written documentation of their unsuccessful efforts to recruit U.S. workers are these employers allowed to request permission to bring in foreign workers on visas for a temporary period, generally less than nine months. When these recruitment requirements are combined with the data that show low domestic demand for this type of work, the argument that these programs take jobs from U.S. workers is exposed as weak and unconvincing.  

U.S. employers who use the heavily regulated H-2A and H-2B programs to meet their legitimate labor needs should be commended, not chided. They spend thousands of dollars, navigate extensive procedural hoops with multiple government agencies, and submit to constant monitoring and auditing in order to bring in needed workers after good-faith efforts to locate U.S. workers are unsuccessful. By participating in these programs instead of hiring undocumented workers “under-the-table,” employers truly give U.S. workers a chance to pursue temporary employment opportunities, should they wish to do so. 

Not surprisingly, agricultural employers using the H-2A program commonly report that, despite their best efforts, they do not receive any applications from U.S. workers in response to their recruitment efforts.  The non-agricultural employers using the H-2B program also struggle to find U.S. workers and report difficulty retaining the few U.S. workers that apply.   

Even in positions unrelated to food, such as landscaping, hospitality, and construction, the demand for able, willing, and available U.S. workers far exceeds the supply.  Add to this equation reports that many unemployed U.S. workers are reluctant to return to work because they make more at home from unemployment and COVID-19 relief payments they would otherwise make on the job, and a new position at a farm or in a meat-packing plant becomes even more unappealing than it was before. 

With the United Nations warning of a food shortages and with meat-packing plants around the country closing due to shortages of healthy workers, it is time to embrace the H-2A and H-2B temporary agricultural and non-agricultural work programs as solutions to the historic labor shortages in the food industry that are certain to be further exacerbated by COVID-19. Fruits and vegetables need to be planted, nurtured, and harvested. Food needs to be processed, packaged, and shipped. Meat, dairy, and poultry also require extensive preparation for market.   

Changes announced recently that promote employer flexibility in hiring and keeping existing H-2A and H-2B workeralready in the country are a good step in the right direction. In this socially distanced new economy, we will continue to rely on migrant labor on a daily basis to enjoy our meals. As we work to re-open and re-build the U.S. economy, employers will likely need more temporary help including from H-2A and H-2B workers that have not yet been admitted into the country.