The State Department agreed to accelerate approvals of H-2A farmworkers by waiving interviews for many applicants, a move welcomed by agricultural groups who feared that embassy cutbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic would leave farms without needed labor. 

Under a State Department policy announced Thursday, consular officers have the option to “waive the visa interview requirement for first-time and returning H-2 applicants who have no potential ineligibility,” according to an Agriculture Department memo obtained by Agri-Pulse.

The State Department’s expansion of the waiver process also quadruples the period in which returning workers may qualify for an interview waiver. Applicants whose previous visas expired during the last four years — an increase over the current limit of 12 months — don’t need to be interviewed if they are applying for the same visa classification and didn’t need an interview the last time they applied. 

A State Department document said the expedited approval process would be good only for this calendar year. 

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Embassies and consulates in Mexico, where regular visa processing services were recently suspended, issued 88.2% of all H-2A visas and 74.1% of all H-2B visas in fiscal 2019.

The action will "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,” said Dave Puglia, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association. 

Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the Trump administration’s action “ provides some certainty to US farmers and ranchers that they will be able to source the workforce necessary to secure America's food supply. This leadership also provides some certainty to US farmers and ranchers that they will be able to source the workforce necessary to secure America's food supply.”

The State Department had said earlier that some returning H-2A workers would qualify for an interview waiver, but farm groups were still concerned that the number of H-2A approvals would be lower this year.

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, also praised the new policy. “We are grateful for the administration’s recognition of our part in keeping food moving from farm to table. We will continue to monitor the implementation and application of these revised regulations and ensure that the fresh fruit and vegetable industry has access to the workers that keep our food economy going during these uncertain times," he said. 

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