Agriculture groups are planning to appeal to the Biden administration for an exemption from the upcoming South Africa travel ban to allow H-2A workers to fly to the United States in time to start work on U.S. farms.

The ban, which takes effect Saturday, was announced Monday as a precaution to keep a strain of COVID-19 circulating in South Africa from getting to the United States. There is no exemption for H-2A workers.

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives has heard from member co-ops in several regions about the potential impact of the ban and is coordinating with other groups on an appeal to the administration for a “national interest” exemption, said NCFC spokesman Justin Darisse.

“At the same time, we appreciate the very real concerns over the South African coronavirus strain, and so we are also discussing how appropriate mitigation measures can be implemented to protect public health,” said Darisse.

Meanwhile, Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rick Crawford, R-Ark., are gathering signatures of colleagues on a letter to the administration in support of an exemption for H-2A workers. In a note to fellow House members, the two lawmakers say, "While we support the effort of the administration to limit the spread and exposure to new and existing strains of COVID we think it is vital that there be an exemption in place for essential workers like those who participate in the H-2A guest worker program. "

The vast majority of H-2A workers are Mexican, but about 1% originate in South Africa.

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Jennifer James, who runs an Arkansas rice, soybean and corn operation, has a contract for three South African workers to start March 1 and is concerned that they may not arrive in time for planting season, which starts in late March.

She said some farms in her region have contract dates starting as soon as next week. South African workers are especially valuable because of their experience in farming and with GPS equipment, she said. 

“There's a few farmers around here that, unfortunately, their entire crew except for family comes from South Africa, so you know that (travel ban) is gonna be very devastating to their operations,” she said.

The national interest exemptions are handled by the Department of Homeland Security and State Department. DHS had no immediate comment on the issue.

Concerns with the H-2A program arose in the spring when lockdowns in Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere threatened to delay visa processing by U.S. consulates. 

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