State Department Accelerates Flow of Cheap Foreign Labor
By Preston Huennekens | FAIR Take | March 2020
On March 26, the State Department issued new guidance on the issuance of H-2 visas, the category for unskilled foreign guest workers. The new policy affects both the massive, unlimited H-2A farmworker program and the smaller, capped H-2B non-agricultural visa. The State Department cites “significant worldwide challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic” as the reason for these changes, which includes waiving interview requirements. The State Department admits in their announcement that “the vast majority of otherwise qualified H-2 applicants will now be adjudicated without an interview.”
Although these measures will end by December 31, 2020, this represents a major change in the way that we adjudicate visa applications for H-2 guest workers. In FY 2019, the State Department issued 204,801 H-2A farmworker visas and 97,623 H-2B non-skilled worker visas, most coming through Mexico – a country doing little to respond to the pandemic. The majority of individuals who received those visas had to navigate an application process that included interviews with consular officials and background checks. Under the department’s new rules, almost no one will receive an in-person interview, possibly letting in thousands of guest workers who our consular officials might otherwise have denied.
This comes after heavy lobbying from the agricultural industry and from the powerful agribusiness advocacy groups such as the Western Growers Association (WGA). An agribusiness trade publication quotes the president and CEO of the WGA saying that the department’s actions “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.”
The State Department’s claim that “the H-2 program is essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority” is doubtful. The H-2B program is certainly not essential to the food security of the United States, as those workers are non-agricultural and work as landscapers, waiters, and maids. In fact, the H-2B program is going to hurt American workers who now find themselves out of work in the service sector due to COVID-19 mandatory quarantines. Easing the issuance of those visas is a slap in the face to these workers who find themselves out of work or working reduced hours.
The H-2A program does contribute to the food supply of the United States, especially for fruits and vegetables, which still rely on labor-intensive growing and harvesting practices, unlike grains which farmers overwhelmingly harvest using advanced automation technology. However, easing already lax restrictions for an unlimited number of H-2A farmworkers is not a serious response to the crisis. Congress just passed a $2 trillion emergency stimulus package addressing the economic destruction wrought by COVID-19. It is disappointing that they did not include subsidies for growers to invest in labor-saving technology, completely preventing labor shortage issues in the first place. Until they finally do, since we are on the cusp of the highest unemployment rate in American history – they must look at American workers first.
Finally, there are significant health concerns related to this temporary policy change. The COVID-19 virus continues to force cities and states to issue quarantine orders, crippling our service-based economy. President Trump and his administration continue to take unprecedented steps to stop the spread of the virus, including stopping most overseas visa processing and banning travel from countries with high rates of infection. Most of our H-2 workers come from Mexico, a country seeing a growing number of COVID-19 cases and a government doing little to stop it. By accelerating the process for getting potentially infected H-2 workers into the country, we could inadvertently reintroduce or introduce COVID-19 into more communities that otherwise would not have faced it.