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Biden’s Travel Ban Affects Ag Industry

President Joe Biden has signed a proclamation limiting and prohibiting travel to the United States from certain countries due to the new strains of COVID-19. South Africa is included in this list of countries, which would impact a significant number of agricultural H-2A workers, nonimmigrant workers that perform agricultural labor on a temporary or seasonal nature. In the third quarter of 2020, there was a 4% increase in H-2A positions from the prior year, nearing 90,000 temporary jobs. The Biden administration banned foreign travelers from South Africa, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and 26 other European countries

The President’s proclamation allows for noncitizens to be exempt from the ban if their arrival is in the national interest. Food and agriculture workers have been deemed essential during the pandemic. The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Acting Homeland Security Secretary David Pekoske requesting an exemption for South African farm labor.

“We appreciate the swift action by the State Department to address a critical need for American agriculture,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall, in a press release. “Farmworkers from South Africa bring valuable and unique skills to the farms on which they are employed. America’s farmers rely on the H-2A program to provide a robust workforce and we are committed to ensuring their safety while continuing to provide healthy, affordable food for families across the country.”

Representatives Frank Lucas (R-OK), Rick Crawford (R-AK), and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) sent a bipartisan letter, along with 42 House colleagues, urging Blinken and Pekoske to prioritize the nation’s agriculture supply chain when imposing travel restrictions. “We appreciate the Administration’s continued efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but we ask that supply chain impacts remain top of mind during these discussions,” wrote the Members of Congress. “Without an exemption to the recently imposed travel restrictions, South African H-2A worker absences would have limited the ability of American farms to continue production of food, fuel, and fiber for our nation. We thank you for your flexibility and efforts to provide an exemption for South African H-2A workers in light of national interest.”

It is estimated that in 2020, 90 workers from the Schengen Area (the 26 European countries that have ended internal borders), 40 from Brazil, and 90 H-2A each from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland participated in the H-2A program, which would now be under travel restrictions, according to an AFBF Market Intel Report.