The U.S. government has raised the cap on H-2B visas, which may free up more foreign guest workers for tree fruit packing houses.

In late December, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it will increase the number of H-2B visas by 20,000 by March 31, according to a news release from the department. Of those supplemental visas, 13,500 will be set aside for returning H-2B workers, the release said. The other 6,500 are reserved for workers from Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

H-2B visas are designed for nonagricultural jobs, but fruit companies have used them to staff packing facilities. Unlike H-2A visas, H-2B visas do not require employers to provide housing. However, in the application process, both visas require evidence of a domestic labor shortage.

Before the supplemental visa announcement, the H-2B program was capped at 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 in each half. The current fiscal year ends March 31.

—by Ross Courtney