Overview of the H-2A Visa Program

August 17, 2021 | Audrey Holtkamp*

History and Impact of the H-2A Visa Program

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act designated a category for the employment of foreign agricultural workers called H-2A. The modern H-2A Nonimmigrant Visa Program allows agricultural employers to request the temporary admission of foreign workers when anticipating a shortage in the domestic labor pool.[1]  

The program was not widely used until the early 2000’s and has grown rapidly since then, with the total number of certified H-2A jobs increasing over 3.5 times from 2011 (77,246 jobs certified) to 2020 (275,430).[2] In 2019, H-2A visa holders made up about 10% of hired agricultural workers.[3]

Employers seeking to use the H-2A Visa Program must be offering a job that is temporary or seasonal in nature. Throughout the application process, they must demonstrate that there are not enough U.S workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to fulfill the position, and that hiring H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S workers. After completing the application process, the employer will receive a temporary labor certification from the U.S Department of Labor.

Why do agricultural employers use the H-2A Visa Program?

Most employers that hire H-2A workers work in crop industries rather than livestock industries, because crops have seasonal planting and harvesting periods that require temporary increases in hired labor. However, employers in any agricultural industry may apply to hire H-2A workers when anticipating a shortage in willing employees residing in the United States.[4] Because dairies and other livestock producers typically need permanent, rather than temporary, workers, they face special challenges when using the H-2A program.  

Employers can fulfill a series of requirements with the State Workforce Agency regarding the recruitment of domestic workers, and if this effort results in an insufficient number of hires, the employer may then receive certification from the Chicago National Processing Center to recruit foreign workers.

Hiring H-2A workers can be a complex and expensive process, however, the level of demand for labor in 2019 was high enough to encourage over 11,400 unique employers to receive the required certifications and become an H-2A employer.[5]

Why do workers apply for H-2A visas?

Unskilled workers facing a lack of job opportunities in their home country may find applying to jobs requiring filing for H-2A status worthwhile. These jobs generally have few required qualifications other than those needed to receive the H-2A visa, and they allow workers to travel to the United States and take advantage of a secure income opportunity for a temporary period of time. This period generally lasts around 10 months, but in some cases the USCIS can extend the period up to three years, as an H-2A visa allows workers to change employers and request an extension in their stay in the United States.

Along with receiving a stable source of income, their travel and living expenses during the period are compensated by their employer. H-2A workers also have the option to bring their family members under an H-4 status.


Additional information about the H-2A visa program can be found at:

https://www.farmers.gov/working-with-us/h2a-visa-program (USDA)

https://www.uscis.gov/working-in-the-united-states/temporary-workers/h-2... (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)



*2021 CALT intern.

[1] Berdikul Qushim et al., “The H-2A Program and Immigration Reform in the United States.” https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FE1029#:~:text=The%20H%2D2A%20program%20allows,United%20States%20for%20temporary%20employment (Last accessed 24 May 2021).

[2] National Council of Agricultural Employers, “H-2A Program Statistics.” http://www.ncaeonline.org/resources/data-and-statistics/ (Last accessed 24 May 2021).

[3] Daniel Costa and Philip Martin, “Coronavirus and Farmworkers- Farm Employment, safety issues, and the H-2A guestworker program.” https://www.epi.org/publication/coronavirus-and-farmworkers-h-2a/#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20Department%20of%20State,jobs%20in%20U.S.%20crop%20agriculture (Last accessed 26 May 2021).

[4] David J. Bier, “H-2A Visas for Agriculture: The Complex Process for Farmers to Hire Agricultural Guest Workers.” https://www.cato.org/publications/immigration-research-policy-brief/h-2a-visas-agriculture-complex-process-farmers-hire#farmers-h-2a-program (Last Accessed 26 May 2021).

[5] Bier (Last accessed 26 May 2021).