The agricultural sector of the economy generated $375.7 billion of output in 2016, making it one of the largest industries in the United States. Farms across the country depend on a workforce that is able to perform difficult physical labor, often on a temporary or seasonal basis. U.S. workers are largely unwilling to seek agricultural employment, and as a result, many growers turn to the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Visa program to meet their labor needs.

In FY 2016, 134,368 H-2A visas were issued, the most in a single year since the program was created in 1986. Usage varies significantly across states, relative to the size of their agricultural sectors. States with smaller agricultural sectors, like Alaska and Rhode Island, may only see a handful of H-2A worker requests. Conversely, employers in Florida and North Carolina requested over 20,000 H-2A workers to support their large farming sectors in FY 2016.

The H-2A was not the first agricultural guest worker program implemented in the United States. From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero Program served as the primary vehicle for U.S. growers to recruit temporary workers. At its height in the late 1950s, over 400,000 braceros came to legally work in the United States every year. Agricultural workers were also eligible to work legally under the temporary worker—H class visa—created by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952, although this program was primarily used for nonagricultural workers. That changed in 1986, when the H program was split into the H-2A agricultural and H-2B non-agricultural temporary worker programs by the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating the categories still in use today.

Despite rising usage, employers have identified serious concerns with the H-2A program that can make it difficult and costly to use. A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that the Department of Labor (DOL) failed to process 37 percent of H-2A employer applications within the statutory approval deadline of 30 days prior to when the worker was scheduled to begin working. Seven percent of applications were approved less than 15 days prior to the job start date, which left employers with an extremely limited window to file additional required paperwork with the Department of Homeland Security and for workers to secure visas from the State Department.

Such bureaucratic delays can result in millions of dollars in losses for U.S. farms, given the time-sensitive nature of agricultural production. For example, a computer system failure at the State Department in 2015 left thousands of H-2A workers stranded outside of the United States, costing California growers an estimated $500,000 to $1 million per day for the duration of the delay. If employers continue to have reason to doubt the ability of the H-2A program to fulfill their labor needs in a timely and efficient manner, their incentive to employ legal workers falls, while the incentive to employ undocumented workers rises.

In recent years, members of both parties have expressed interest in reforming the H-2A program. In June 2016, 102 members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to DOL and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suggesting measures that would help prevent future delays and make the program easier for employers to use.

Read the full report here.