A recent State Department move is expected to speed approval of farmworkers seeking to enter the country, but observers of the process are still keeping a watchful eye on many parts of the H-2A visa program.

Last week, the department announced that local consulates would be allowed to waive interviews for H-2A applicants with no potential red flags on their applications. Farm groups had previously expressed concern that an interview requirement would grind the process to a halt after consulates began teleworking in response to COVID-19.

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the Ag Workforce Coalition — which counts NCFC among its dozen members — is now offering itself up to be “caseworkers” of sorts as producers try to navigate the approval process.

“On a number of fronts, I feel very positive,” Conner said in assessing the current H-2A approval situation. “I believe we are poised to be in a position to help those farmers and growers out there that are running into difficulty, and let’s hope and pray that there are no difficulties and this is seamless. But we’re there in the event that it’s not.”

Conner says NCFC is watching to see how the process of expediting approvals will work, especially since some of the very officials issuing the approvals are themselves teleworking. As a good chunk of the American workforce is learning, the process is not always smooth.

“We also know just from our own experiences,” Conner added. “I mean, I tried to have a staff meeting yesterday. There were glitches. There’s going to be glitches here.”

Jonathan Sarager, a director of federal government affairs with the Western Growers Association, said the State Department directive allowed for consulates to waive the interviews and expedite the approvals, but it didn’t order them to do so. Even still, he said the Monterrey consulate in northeast Mexico is processing applications, and many growers are working to route their applications through that facility as a result.

Chuck Conner, NCFC

Chuck Conner, NCFC

The new framework comes at a critical time for producers looking for the seasonal help H-2A workers provide in April and May fieldwork.

“We feel like we’re getting hit from all sides,” Sarager said. “We want to do our part in making sure that this virus doesn’t spread. At the same time, we have a challenge of continuing to be able to harvest.”

While Monterrey is up and running, some consulates are in countries where movement is far more restricted. South Africa, for example, is under a police-enforced lockdown prohibiting any nonessential movement.

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There’s also the question of a potential extension of visas for H-2A workers already in the U.S. Allison Crittendon, a director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said there’s no indication the departments of Agriculture and Labor have relaxed the existing regulations on that front, but the two departments have said it’s a move they would consider.

Crittendon said timely processing and arrival of workers is still a paramount issue, as is a potential lengthening the period that workers already in the country can stay. But so far, the recent actions appear to be addressing the primary concern of workers not being able to be cleared in the first place.

“Even last week I was hearing reports of workers being able to get their visas processed and across the border,” she said, pointing to one anecdotal report of a farmer getting new H-2A workers approved the same day as the State Department’s announcement. “So I think it’s been implemented and is in action. Of course, time will tell. … Until we get through, I think we’ll be holding our breath.”

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