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Two Birds, One Stone: Opportunities for the Expansion of H2-A Visas and Related Programs - Tyler Cox

Hello! My name is Tyler Cox. I am a third-year student leading API’s housing insecurity policy team. This post will highlight the H2-A visa program as an often-overlooked immigration policy. It can address some underlying labor market integration issues within the North American Free Trade Organization (NAFTA). I welcome any comments or concerns (tyler.cox@uga.edu). Enjoy!


The U.S. has grappled with immigration policy, especially regarding undocumented immigrants, for decades. Immigration policy and the labor market are often intertwined as issues of economic opportunity and work authorization affect migrant decision-making. This represents an especially unique opportunity for policy that addresses the intersectionality of these issues. One such policy is the H2-A visa program that allows legal status for migrant agricultural workers in the U.S. This program promises to solve America’s migration problem by legalizing and providing rights to migrant workers. Practical reforms, as well as the adoption of H2-A policies in other industries that face labor shortages through related programs such as H2-B visas or alternatives such as the North American Agricultural Work Visa (NAAV) program as proposed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, stand as viable options for addressing both labor market shortages and gaps in immigration policy. Expanding these migrant worker protections can solve several immigration and labor issues simultaneously while being economically efficient.


A brief understanding of the H2-A program as currently constituted is necessary to analyze the policy and its merits properly—the program from a labor shortage in the U.S., particularly in the agricultural industry. Put simply, there are too many jobs, and not enough American citizens are willing to fill them. The economic reasoning for this is complex, but in simple terms, Americans have shown a reluctance to take these jobs. As a key feature of the program, employers must follow what is known as a 50% rule, in which the government actively advertises the job to American citizens. Employers are required to hire any citizen applicants up to at least 50% before using the H2-A program. This theoretically would protect American laborers, except that nearly no citizens apply. In the case of farmer Jake Harward, he stated, “We advertise in [five] states," and "We get maybe two applications for the 25 positions we are trying to fill." This leads many farmers to look elsewhere for labor and take advantage of the H2-A visa program.


Once a farmer decides to pursue an H2-A visa program, significant bureaucratic measures are in place. The application process involves filing paperwork with the Department of Labor (DOL), Homeland Security, Agriculture (USDA), and state agencies. Once the application is approved, employers must provide migrant workers with transportation to the farm, housing, food and wages that are either minimum wage or the Adverse Effect Wage Rate defined by the Department of Labor, which is significantly above minimum wage in most states. While this bureaucratic process often slows the process, it ensures that workers have legal protections once they arrive in the U.S. and holds employers accountable.


Additionally, it may be particularly relevant to point out that the vast majority, upwards of 93%, of H2-A workers are from Mexico. In this light, the H2-A visa program is a possible remedy to the issues described in Douglas S. Massey’s Borderline Madness: America’s Counterproductive Immigration Policy. Massey largely describes U.S. policy towards immigration as paradoxical, especially in reference to Mexico, as the U.S. has primarily attempted to integrate the two economies while trying to continue segregating the labor market (Massey, p. 131). The H2-A program operates as a vehicle to address this concern, effectively allowing migrants legal status in the U.S. while they work without granting them citizenship. This allows for an otherwise impossible exchange of labor that is mutually beneficial to both sides.


Critics of the H2-A visa program primarily point toward its potential for human rights abuses and the mistreatment of workers. Though this is a valid concern, the program has seen a widespread expansion in the past few decades and has not seen a significant uptick in abuses within the program. In an analysis of a controversial NBC news report that stated the program was in crisis, David J. Bier of the CATO Institute found that “the number of violations per 1,000 H‑2A jobs is still 29 percent lower than the average year since 2000” and that much of NBC’s data describing the reported crisis was not representative of real-life trends and often did not include a wide range of years. While these concerns are well-intentioned, they assume that getting rid of the program or better regulating it would lead to less abuse, when in reality, the majority of abusive cases regarding immigrants are in undocumented cases. In fact, the H2-A program may be understood as preventing more abuses than it causes.


Given this context, expanding and refining the H2-A visa program presents a significant opportunity for a struggling U.S. labor market. An underutilized cousin to the H2-A program is the H2-B visa program, which provides a similar service for non-agricultural workers. This program could solve problems identical to those faced by agriculture and other industries. For example, the Department of Commerce identified durable goods manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade and leisure and hospitality as having labor shortages between 30 and 50 percent in 2022. Widespread adoption of this program could remedy these shortages. Concerns over protecting American jobs are explicitly addressed by the existing confines that these programs operate within, namely the 50% rule, which requires firms to hire Americans first. By expanding this program, the U.S. could simultaneously decrease undocumented work in these fields, increase economic growth and solve labor shortages affecting everyday items' prices.


As a formal policy recommendation, this would simplify the process for employers and migrant workers. Much of the criticism of the H2-A program centers around the fact that it is costly and time-consuming for employers to pursue the legal and arguably best option, causing an incentive to continue to hire undocumented workers. In fact, the constraints of the H2-A program can cost employers significantly more. According to a statement by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NASC), “It is estimated that an H-2A worker costs 40% more than one hired off the street—as employers are forced to bear many recruitment, transport, and housing costs, some of which—such as the endless efforts to recruit domestic workers who don’t want the jobs—make little sense.” As a potential remedy to this issue, policy must focus on making this program more accessible to employers by removing unnecessary barriers within the bureaucratic structure of the program that incur costs on the employers, namely recruiting efforts that have largely proven futile.


NASC also proposed implementing a new program to replace the existing H2-A policy. The North American Agricultural Work Visa (NAAV) proposal makes key innovations to the existing H2-A policy. Most notably, it calls to do away with housing, transportation, and food requirements in exchange for significantly increasing the mobility of migrant workers. The visa would require a sponsoring employer, but it would not require that the entirety of the visa be spent with that first employer. Instead, it would allow migrant workers to find employment within the entire agricultural industry, primarily by registering with the government and the USDA instead of their employers. This would arguably reduce the potential for human rights abuses because the migrant worker has leverage to seek employment elsewhere while simultaneously making the system more accessible for a larger number of employers on both a bureaucratic and cost level.


Policies that are aimed at increasing opportunities for migrant workers will ultimately not only be beneficial for the economy but also help to combat America’s immigration challenges. As argued in Lowenstein’s The Immigration Equation, In economists' lingo, foreigners are not ’perfect substitutes.’ … In some cases, they will complement rather than compete with native workers.” This is a perfect example of that case. The pursuit of either the expansion of H2-A and H2-B programs or alternative approaches such as NAAV highlights the potential for migrant workers to pick up their slack where American citizens are not. This complementary relationship can help to keep prices low, allow migrant workers to earn significantly higher wages than they would in their home country and promote legal migration.


Conclusively, the expansion of H2-A and H2-B visa programs and the consideration of overhauling the system through a pursuit that more closely resembles NAAV have numerous economic and social benefits. Though concerns with H2-A programs as currently constituted are valid, at its core, the program is a model of a beneficial relationship between the U.S. and primarily Mexico. The integration of these two economics, especially when considering the labor market, presents significant opportunities for economic growth and decreases illegal immigration. By allowing migrant workers the clear opportunity to work in the U.S. while simultaneously reducing costs imposed by the program on employers in the U.S., a new wave of economic cooperation between the two countries can be possible. Using the H2-A program as a starting point, the U.S. can potentially solve two major issues within its labor market and immigration policy. Why not kill two birds with one stone?

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