The federal government will limit, but not completely stop, processing visas for foreign agricultural guest workers in reaction to the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department sent a notice to all employers with pending H-2 applications informing them that the embassy in Monterrey, Mexico, will continue to process visiting workers who have already been to the United States and are therefore eligible to waive the in-person interviews required of new guest workers.

However, government officials ask employers and visa companies to not attempt to make appointments for any new employees or returning workers who require in-person interviews due to law enforcement or immigration violations.

Throughout the world, many U.S. embassies have closed or cut back on their work as a way to limit social contact in the face of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. On Monday, the embassies in Mexico announced on their website they would completely close and only process travel visas on an “emergency basis.” Farm employer groups pushed back Monday and earlier this morning.

The agreement to process returning workers helps provide needed agricultural labor throughout the United States while respecting health authorities’ calls for “social distancing,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council for Agricultural Employers.

“This is probably at least half a loaf,” Marsh said in a phone interview with the Good Fruit Grower on Tuesday.

Most deciduous tree fruit industry employers get visiting workers from Mexico, but Jamaica also sends its share. That embassy is closed completely, Marsh said. 

On March 11, the U.S. embassy in Kingston announced one employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. Other notices on the embassy’s website mention two of the nation’s airports will close to international flights from March 22 to April 12.

In fiscal year 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor certified 257,000 H-2A positions throughout the nation. However, many employees fill more than one contract during a year, so roughly 200,000 people came to work in America under H-2A contracts, Marsh said.

Tree fruit producing states are among the highest users of the H-2A program. 

Washington was the third with 26,000 certifications in 2019, followed by California at fourth with 23,000. Michigan was seventh with 9,000, New York eighth with 8,100.

Here is an excerpt from the letter to pending H-2 applicants:

“Notice to H-2 Petitioners:  In response to the global pandemic COVID-19, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and all U.S. consulates in Mexico will cancel routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services starting March 18, 2020.  This includes both visa interviews at the consulate as well as processing at the Centros de Atención a Solicitantes (CAS). 

“We intend to continue processing H2 cases but will need to modify our procedures in order to facilitate the social distancing recommended by health authorities. The U.S. Consulate General Monterrey will prioritize the processing of returning H-2 workers who are eligible for an interview waiver. Because limited interview appointments will be available, we may cancel some first-time applicant appointments that have already been scheduled. If circumstances change, we will contact you with additional information.

“As a reminder, ‘returning H-2 workers (IW)’ are applicants whose H-2A or H-2B visas have expired in the last twelve months and are now applying for the same visa classification and did not require a waiver the last time they applied for a visa.  Please do not make IW appointments for first-time applicants or applicants who require an interview every year due to law enforcement or immigration violations.  First-time applications will not be processed if they are submitted as returning applicants.”

—by Ross Courtney