It’s Time to Improve Flawed H-2A Program for Growers

H-2A fieldworkers at Astin Farms

Plant City, FL-based Astin Farms has moved to costly H-2A labor to harvest crops.
Photo by Frank Giles

In May, the Trump administration announced plans to undertake a rule-making process to help streamline the admission of H-2A workers into the U.S. and ease the administrative and cost burdens on growers using the program.

In a joint statement from the Secretaries of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue; Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen; Labor, Alexander Acosta; and State; Mike Pompeo, the administration vowed to make improvements to the program.


In part, the statement read: “The Trump administration is committed to modernizing the H-2A visa program rules in a way that is responsive to stakeholder concerns and that deepens our confidence in the program as a source of legal and verified labor for agriculture — while also reinforcing the program’s strong employment and wage protections for the American workforce. In addition, by improving the H-2A visa program and substantially reducing its complexity, the administration also plans to incentivize farmers’ use of the E-Verify program to ensure their workforce is authorized to work in the U.S. As the agencies tasked with administering or facilitating the H-2A visa program, and thus closest to farmer and labor stakeholders, the Departments of State, Agriculture, Labor, and Homeland Security are embarking on a process to modernize the H-2A visa program by clarifying and improving the regulations governing the program. We look forward to delivering a more responsive program soon.”

I am not sure how the agriculture industry would feel about the E-Verify part, but delivering a more streamlined and responsive program surely would be welcomed. With all its flaws, the program has continued to grow in popularity. Nearly all citrus in the state is harvested by H-2A workers, and strawberry and blueberry growers are moving to it in a big way.

Florida ranks as the No. 1 user of the program in the country. Why? Because it is the only game in town that will deliver legal workers that growers can count on to come motivated to work and stay on their farms for the allotted amount of time specified by the visa.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in recent years where growers tell me they hate this or that about H-2A. But at the end of the day, they need the program. That’s why demand is growing among growers here in Florida and beyond. Let’s hope these announced improvements ensure a large enough cap on visas to accommodate the growing need for the program.

Data recently released by the Department of Labor (DOL) indicates that U.S. farmers and ranchers continue to demand an increasingly large number of foreign workers via the H-2A program. In the second quarter of fiscal 2018, DOL certified 80,348 H-2A positions nationally, up more than 16% from the second quarter of fiscal 2017 when DOL certified 68,999 positions. Even more impressive, 2018 position certifications for this quarter are more than 150% higher than the same period just five years ago.

Beyond obtaining reliable labor, it is easy to understand why growers are gravitating to the program. Enforcement actions by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency are up, putting growers on edge. Construction, especially in Florida, is booming and drawing people away from ag jobs. Fewer workers from Mexico are crossing the border seeking work. It all adds up to the need for a better and more accessible H-2A program.

Let’s hope the Trump administration delivers on its promise.