New Travel Restrictions to Impact Ag Industry

New Travel Restrictions to Impact Ag Industry

Just one week after the Supreme Court of the United States moved to block the proposed federal vaccine mandate on companies with 100 or more employees, DHS announced it will be requiring all non-U.S. individuals seeking to enter the U.S. via land ports of entry and ferry terminals at the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and provide related proof of vaccinations starting January 22.

While travel restrictions governing the admission of non-citizens to the United States have been around since the beginning of the pandemic, they have – up to this point – been targeted largely by visa category and by country. Additionally, “essential” workers, including H-2A seasonal guest workers and truck drivers, were always exempt from these restrictions due to the critical role they play in our nation’s farming operations and food-related supply chain. Exempt until now, that is.

Unfortunately, and unlike previous travel restrictions, this new DHS requirement does not provide any exemptions for essential workers. If left unchanged, this could severely restrict the travel of an estimated 12,000 H-2A seasonal guest workers coming to Michigan in 2022.

Not only is this unprecedented, it also marks an abrupt reversal within the Biden administration. As recently as January 6, DHS lifted travel restrictions on 7,000 seasonal H-2A workers from South Africa to supplement labor shortages on American farms.

Now, however, non-U.S. individuals traveling to the United States via land ports of entry or ferry terminals, whether for essential or non-essential reasons, must:

  • verbally attest to their COVID-19 vaccination status;
  • provide proof of a CDC-approved COVID-19 vaccination, as outlined on the CDC website;
  • present a valid Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)-compliant document, such as a valid passport, Trusted Traveler Program card, or Enhanced Tribal Card; and,
  • be prepared to present any other relevant documents requested by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer during a border inspection.

If a non-U.S. individual cannot provide proof of vaccination, they will be denied entry into the U.S.

Sarah Black, general manager of Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS) which focuses on H-2A visas, said even the seasonal workers who choose to comply could still face a number of difficulties and delays. 

“Unfortunately, the vaccines on the [CDC] approved list are not readily available throughout Mexico,” said Black. “It’s not as easy to get them because the Mexican government administers the COVID vaccinations in that country.”

Even in a best-case scenario, Black said, CDC-accepted vaccination protocols require a minimum of two weeks after the single- or two-dose vaccination for entry. This means an additional four-week delay for guest workers once they receive a CDC-approved vaccine.  Several farm operations in Michigan have workers scheduled to begin arriving within the next two weeks, leaving them scrambling for help amid an already tight labor market. Given the two-day window between this mandate’s announcement and its effective date, they were left with little choice.

“DHS failed to provide proper notice of the mandate, which gives farmers, ranchers, and agriculture suppliers no time to prepare,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall. “Farmworkers and truck drivers provide critical skills and have [already] been designated as essential by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Further limiting the available workforce will exacerbate existing supply chain issues as families face rising prices and fewer options at the grocery store.”

Negative ramifications are expected, in part, because our national dependence on H-2A workers has grown significantly in recent years. Fiscal year 2021, for example, saw a record 317,619 total positions certified by the Department of Labor  — a 15.3% increase relative to 2020. Michigan ranked seventh in overall H-2A positions certified in FY 2021 with 11,376 — a 3.6% increase from previous year figures.

“The continued growth in the use of the H-2A program just illustrates that a lack of available, reliable and qualified labor continues to be the number one concern for many farms today,” Black said. “It also demonstrates how this DHS requirement will severely exacerbate an already extremely short labor situation in the entire food supply chain. The impact to consumers at the grocery store will be significant.”

We couldn’t agree more and will be coordinating our efforts with allied associations and regulatory stakeholders to advocate for change. Specifically, we are calling on DHS to amend their rule and grant “National Interest Exceptions” to essential workers, like H-2A workers and truck drivers, who are coming into our country to work our farms and put food on our table.

With Michigan home to 47,000 farms and a $104.7 billion agri-business industry, inaction is not an option.