Insights into the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program

There are a number of ways to immigrate to the U.S.  Today, we’re just going to talk about the temporary kind.

Did you know that, at one time or another, 21 different visa programs have been set up for international workers to come & work temporarily in the United States?  For example, H-1C visas allowed for foreign registered nurses (RNs) to come to the US after an RN-shortage was declared, from 1999-2009.  P-3 visas are available for artists or entertainers who are part of a culturally unique program.  There’s also E-2, which is set aside for so-called “Treaty Investors,” aka foreigners who invest a lot of money in American enterprises.

You’ve probably never heard of those.  I’ll bet, however, that you have heard of the H-2A visa program:  a non-immigrant visa that allows foreign nationals to come to the U.S. and work in agriculture for 10 months out of the year before they’re required to return home.  It’s becoming more and more popular, and people are starting to notice and wonder why.

The bottom line?  Much of it boils down to economics.


As the unemployment rate plummets, farmers have had to look harder for workers willing to work in their dairies, pick their produce, and tend their animal herds.  Since this is extremely hard work, filling the jobs has been a difficult task.  As a result, some jobs are going unfilled and not all crops are getting picked.

Also, many mid-size farms are going out of business, pressured by the rising cost of labor and the ever-falling prices of commodities and milk.  It’s a double squeeze.  Wisconsin, for example, has been hit especially hard, losing 700 farms in 2018 alone.

In response to these economic and political pressures employers have been turning to H-2A.

The H-2A visa program permits an uncapped number of foreign nationals to come to the United States for temporary agricultural jobs.  Employer participants in the program have complained about the onerous paperwork, the costs, and the legal requirements of the program.  Many who sign up for it, however, say they are pleased by how hard-working their new employees are, and that the new-found stability of their workforce has been a lifesaver.


Through the H-2A visa program, employers can get workers who:

  • Are largely undistracted and available, since they migrate by themselves (family members are not issued a visa unless they, too, are coming to work);
  • Are motivated to work as fast and efficiently as possible in order to maximize their earnings (a lot of H-2A workers send remittances back home to support their families);
  • Cannot leave the farm or change employers without jeopardizing their visas;
  • Are not citizens and therefore have no political say-so.
  • Additionally, since H-2A visa holders will not become U.S. citizens, employers are not required to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes on their wages.


To complicate things a little bit, the farm owner is not always, and in fact often is not, the legal employer of the farmworker.  Rather, there is a labor contractor go-between who, depending on state & federal law and how it’s being interpreted, is solely responsible for the employees’ well-being and for making sure labor laws are being upheld.  This can lead to a genuine lack of knowledge on the part of many farm owners, who do not know who is laboring on their land nor under what conditions.


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Farmworkers harvest sweet potatoes in North Carolina.  AFOP Health & Safety, 2010.


We can’t stress enough that most farm owners and labor contractors are decent employers who would never stoop to the kind of behavior we’re about to describe.


In some cases, unfortunately, the H-2A program has become the ideal environment for worker exploitation.  As our friends at Farmworker Justice described in their 2014 publication, “No Way to Treat a Guest,” laborers in the H-2A visa program suffer disproportionately from wage theft, unsanitary housing, unsafe working conditions, discrimination, and more – all of which can be signs of human trafficking.   Unscrupulous employers can confiscate their employees’ legal documents as a way to make sure they remain compliant.  Workers are often in isolated, rural areas, unfamiliar with the U.S. criminal justice system and the English language.  They’re told that no one cares about them and that they will be deported if they speak up about it.

Sadly, that’s often true.  According to a report by American University, very few human trafficking survivors were aided by law enforcement.  Many were indeed placed into deportation proceedings.  And even if they were awarded a T-visa (available to victims of human trafficking), there was a lack of awareness by officials as to the validity of that visa when they went to apply for other necessary legal documents.


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Farmworkers harvest sweet potatoes in North Carolina.  AFOP Health & Safety, 2010.


If we expect prospective farmworkers to know the difference between a good job and a fraudulent one, we are not fully appreciating their predicament.  Since both valid and abusive labor contracts are (at least ostensibly) brokered through the U.S. government, immigrants will not know they’re in a pickle until it’s too late.  Also, since most employers need to use a third party for recruiting workers in their country of origin, the employers themselves may not be aware of the extortion that goes on before an H-2A worker even arrives:  that he/she is already thousands of dollars in debt, having been forced to pay for the opportunity to work in the United States.


What is the solution?

Farmworker Justice makes many recommendations, most of which have not yet been followed or put into effect.  For example, employers should be held jointly accountable for the actions of their recruiters abroad.  DOL should increase enforcement and fines for abusive employers, barring them from participating in the H-2A program once they violate it.  H-2A workers should be allowed to change employers, and have a way to earn a more permanent immigration status in order to enforce their rights and improve their conditions.

More oversight is also a good idea.  For example, Washington state recently passed a law, creating a new state office called the Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services.  The goal:  to take a closer look at the H-2A program in their state, which has grown 1,000% since 2009.

However you slice it, something needs to be done.  But will it?

Fortunately, AFOP Health & Safety programs serve and benefit all farmworkers, whether or not they’re H-2A.  We offer heat stress training, pesticide safety training, as well as education for pregnant farmworkers and for children.  Our model is holistic and thorough, offered in the farmworkers’ native language whenever possible, because we believe that, regardless of your immigration status:  if you’re out in the fields, you need and deserve to be safe.