The H-2A visa, an immigration program for temporary agricultural workers, is an essential way to meet the United States’ labor needs. An analysis of H-2A program usage throughout the pandemic and COVID-19 related travel bans illuminate the need for reform to address the labor shortage in the agriculture industry.

Recently released data by the Department of Labor on the H-2A program demonstrates the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of granted visas in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 climbed by nearly 20 percent; however, the number of certified visas granted declined in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2021, Arizona was second in the nation for the number of H-2A visas granted.

It appears that the impact on H-2A visas was caused by a decline in the number of applications which impacted the number of visas granted in the following quarter. This initial decline was not caused by decreased demand, but rather caution about how the H-2A program would operate during a pandemic. This suggests that while the pandemic has shifted the pattern of worker arrivals, it has not curbed the overall upward trajectory of the program.

The reliance on the H-2A visa was particularly evident in January when travel restrictions to combat COVID-19 infections went into effect for Brazil, China, Iran, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the Schengen Area of Europe. These restrictions were an immediate concern for H-2A program users, especially those who hire approximately 5,000 of these essential workers from South Africa. After outreach by the agricultural community, the State Department quickly clarified on January 28 that agriculture workers from South Africa entering the U.S. qualify for national interest exceptions on a case-by-case basis; unfortunately, restrictions on H-2A workers from the other countries remain in place.

Addressing the labor shortage in the agriculture industry and making necessary reform to the agriculture visa process is a top priority for the Arizona Farm Bureau in the 117th Congress, and for years to come. For questions and more information, please contact