State Department’s exemption for South African H-2A workers tied to ag considered a win for harvesters

The exemption of H-2A workers who work in particular with wheat harvesting operations provided welcome relief from a potential ban of foreign workers.

On Jan. 28, the U.S. Department of State provided an exemption for certain South African H-2A workers from travel restriction as the agency cited food and national security priorities.

A Kansas Wheat official said his organization was pleased with the Department of State’s announcement regarding H-2A workers and their designation as a national security priority.

“We commend them on their quick reaction to clarifying an uncertain situation. We are glad to see that the Department of State heard the concerns of those most affected, considered the consequences, and swiftly acted accordingly,” said Justin Knopf, president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, in a news release issued on Jan. 29.

Kansas Wheat has several members that would have been directly affected had this not been resolved. This is good news for farmers not only in Kansas, but across the entire region. These workers are a vital part of the agriculture labor force and will begin arriving soon for harvest, he said.

“We also would like to commend the leadership of Sens. (Jerry) Moran and (Roger) Marshall for their lead in trying to pre-emptively solve a potential problem,” Knopf said. “Their work with farmers and farm organizations to address the situation cannot go unnoticed. We are glad that Kansas continues to have leaders that fight for their farmer constituents.”

Several other lawmakers from the High Plains region took note too.

Congressmen Frank Lucas, R-OK, Congressman Rick Crawford, R-AR, and Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-TX, penned a bipartisan letter with 42 House colleagues urging U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary David Pekoske to prioritize the nation’s agriculture supply chain when imposing travel restrictions. The letter comes after the White House issued President Joe Biden’s Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-Immigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease.

“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.”

The Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-Immigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease limits the travel of noncitizens from several countries including many from countries whose citizens participate in the H-2A visa program.

“The H-2A visa program is vital to the economy and food security of America. From farmers in the South depending on these workers to help till their crop and man the lines of the food supply chain to producers out West who rely on the labor to harvest rows of farmland, H-2A workers are essential to America’s agriculture industry. COVID-19 brought to light both the strengthens and vulnerabilities of our food supply chain. While we continue our fight to eradicate the coronavirus from our communities, now is not the time to weaken our food supply chain, limiting the agriculture industry’s ability to feed, fuel, and clothe our fellow Americans,” Lucas said. “While I appreciate the continued efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I urge President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and Acting Secretary Pekoske to keep our nation’s food supply chain at the forefront of their thoughts when implementing any further travel restrictions.”

Also signing the letter from the High Plains region included Randy Feenstra and Ashley Hinson, of Iowa; Tracey Mann, Jake LaTurner and Ron Estes, of Kansas; Jason Smith and Vicky Hartzler, of Missouri; French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman, of Arkansas; Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota; and Tom Cole, of Oklahoma; Ron Wright and Austin Pfluger, of Texas; Jim Hagedorn and Michelle Fischbach, of Minnesota.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].