The State Department agreed Thursday to give H-2A workers from South Africa an exemption from the U.S. travel ban taking effect on Saturday.

The national interest exemption will also apply to some H-2B visa holders who work in food processing and other areas of the food supply chain. The travel ban is intended to curb the spread of a COVID-19 strain that was found in South Africa.

“The H-2 program is essential to the economy and food security of the United States and is a national security priority,” according to a State Department notice. “Therefore, we intend to continue processing H-2 applications for individuals who provide temporary labor or services essential to the United States food supply chain, as permitted by post resources and local government restrictions.”

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The notice said that workers already holding approved visas should follow procedures provided by the U.S. embassy or consulate. 

About 5,000 H-2A workers, many of them agricultural equipment operators, come from South Africa annually, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which appealed to the Biden administration for the exemption.

“Many of these South African H-2A workers have a unique skillset, and American farmers are counting on their timely arrival as they make plans for their upcoming growing seasons,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in a letter to the departments of State and Homeland Security.

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