American farmers are bracing for a shortage of seasonal workers following the State Department’s suspension of routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa processing in Mexico, including for temporary migrant laborers, beginning Wednesday.
The delay in visa processing for farmworkers comes just as harvest season begins in Florida. Companies responsible for feeding the country are already expecting fewer available workers to manufacture, deliver and unpack groceries as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies.
The seafood industry, including fisheries and crab-picking in Maryland, whose hiring season starts in April, will also be affected by the U.S. government’s decision.
“One of the most important things we need to do is to make sure that our supply chains for food stay in place, and guest workers are a big part of what drives that engine,” said Sarah Frey, founder and chief executive of Frey Farms, which operates in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia. “We have to figure out ways to keep going. Right now, feeding people is an essential service.”
Frey said she was making calls to lawmakers until midnight all week, extolling the important role migrant farmworkers play in the U.S. food supply. Of the 500 to 600 workers Frey employs during peak season, about 250 are on H-2A seasonal worker visas.
Frey said she was expecting her first crew of two dozen workers to come from Mexico in 10 days to help with the watermelon and tomato harvest in LaBelle, Florida. She is expecting more migrant workers through the spring and summer, picking fruits and vegetables at her farms in Indiana and Missouri, and harvesting pumpkins come fall.
The American Farm Bureau Federation warned that the suspension in visa processing in Mexico could have a major effect on agricultural production.
“Under the new restrictions, American farmers will not have access to all of the skilled immigrant labor needed at a critical time in the planting season. This threatens our ability to put food on Americans’ tables,” federation president Zippy Duvall said in a statement.
The federation said it is working with the Trump administration to find safe, practical ways to admit farm laborers as emergency workers under the H-2A guest worker program. “Failing to do so will impact our ability to provide a healthy, affordable domestic food supply,” Duvall said.
Many seasonal workers will still be granted entry. The State Department is allowing laborers with previous work experience in the United States and who do not require in-person interviews to return, according to the federation. In 2019, 258,000 migrant workers received H-2A visas, the vast majority of whom were from Mexico.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said the agency is working with the State Department to ensure minimal disruption in visa applications.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.
The agency has told industry associations that it intends to continue processing H-2A visas for agricultural workers and H-2B visas for seasonal laborers in the seafood, landscaping and other industries – but that it will modify its procedures “to facilitate the social distancing recommended by health authorities,” according to an email obtained by The Washington Post.
The U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, said it would prioritize the processing of returning seasonal workers who are eligible for an interview waiver. “Because limited interview appointments will be available, we may cancel some first-time applicant appointments that have already been scheduled,” the email said. “First-time applications will not be processed if they are submitted as returning applicants.”
Allowing returning H-2A workers to be processed without interviews will help ease the plight of farmers counting on foreign labor, but it “certainly will not solve the entire problem,” said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
Florida grows 300 commercial crops, nearly all of which depend on migrant laborers, he said.
“We have very few domestic workers available to us,” Carlton said. “The numbers are not sustainable for us.”
Labor-intensive, hand-harvested crops will be hit the hardest by the delay in visa processing, he said, especially as crunchtime for Florida farms approaches in the fall.
Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, a trade organization, says the state’s tomato producers rely especially on H-2A laborers.
“It’s become a bigger part of our workforce in recent years,” he said. “This latest development puts at risk a portion of our tomato crop from being harvested, as well as all kinds of crops from around the country. We need a quick resolution so that farmers can continue supplying fruits and vegetables to the country during this challenging time.”
There will probably be widespread unemployment in the hospitality, travel and tourism fields due to coronavirus quarantines and curfews. But Carlton said laid-off hotel and restaurant workers are unlikely to fill the labor shortage in food production.
“It’s certainly a potential source of labor,” he says, “but it does require a certain amount of skill to be productive in harvesting fruits and vegetables. You need to get produce harvested when it’s ready to be harvested. Delays due to inexperienced workers could mean losses of crop. This work has not generally been something that domestic workers are willing to do.”
California is likely to be hardest hit, bringing in only half of the migrant labor it will need, according to Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for Western Growers, a trade group. Historically 50 to 60 percent of the seasonal farmworkers are returning, Resnick said. Of those, 10 to 15 percent would have issues that would not qualify them for the interview waivers.
The state’s $45 billion agriculture industry produces nearly half of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables, and employs roughly 800,000 farmworkers. In the past five years, more than 40 percent of California farmers reportedly have been unable to hire all the workers they have needed, with many turning to mechanization to make up for the shortfall.
Growers in Salinas, California, will be affected first. They were scheduled to have workers arrive at the end of March, working fields of lettuces and leafy greens.
“The application process requires that you apply two months before you need the workers,” Resnick said, “So summer fruits and vegetables could get stacked up like dominoes. It’s going to affect the entire country.”
In Virginia and Maryland, crab season opened this week in the Chesapeake Bay. Given the mild winter, crabs are already starting to scurry out of the mud and into the crab pots, said A.J. Erskine, who works for two seafood companies and is board chairman of the Virginia Seafood Council.
“That resource is going to be harvested but not processed because there’s not going to be any seasonable labor to help pick that crab meat,” Erskine said.
Seafood companies have Mexican migrant workers scheduled to cross the border over the next two weeks who may no longer be processed, industry representatives say.
“It’s going to be devastating to the Virginia commercial seafood industry if these crab pickers, bait packers and fish packers don’t get help,” said Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board, which represents the state’s seafood industry. “The timing can’t be any worse. It’s possible that for some of these people, if they don’t get their workers, they could go out of business.”