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The H-2A Program in 2020

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May 19, 2020

The H-2A program allows farm employers to request certification from the US Department of Labor to recruit and employ foreign workers to fill seasonal farm jobs, generally defined as those lasting up to 10 months. DOL certified 257,666 jobs to be filled with H-2A workers in FY19, when the top five H-2A states, Florida, Georgia, Washington, California, and North Carolina, accounted for over half of all H-2A jobs certified.

The US Department of State issued almost 205,000 H-2A visas in FY19. Mexicans received over 90 percent of H-2A visas, followed by almost three percent for Jamaicans and two percent for Guatemalans.

The H-2A program was expected to expand in the 1990s after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 imposed federal sanctions on employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers. Instead, the H-2A program shrank as the Florida sugarcane harvest was mechanized and unauthorized Mexicans arrived in large numbers and presented false documents that satisfied IRCA’s I-9 right-to-work documentation requirements.

The number of US farm jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers remained below 100,000 until 2014, doubled to over 200,000 in 2017, and has continued to increase. There are about a million year-round equivalent jobs in US crop agriculture, where most H-2A workers are employed. H-2A workers are in the US an average six months, so they fill 10 percent of the year-round equivalent jobs in US crop agriculture.

California has about 400,000 year-round equivalent jobs in crop agriculture. The 12,000 full-time equivalent H-2A workers filled about three percent of the state’s crop jobs in 2019. The top 10 H-2A employers in California accounted for over three-fourths of the 23,000 H-2A jobs certified in FY19, led by Fresh Harvest with almost 5,000 jobs certified.

Half of the $39 billion in US farm labor expenses reported by farmers to the Census of Agriculture in 2017 was paid by farms producing fruits, vegetables and horticultural specialties, FVH commodities. Labor was 30 to 40 percent of FVH farms’ production expenses, and FVH farms accounted for two-thirds of all H-2A jobs certified.

In March 2020, DOS began to grant visas to H-2A workers without the in-person interviews that are normally required. Two-thirds of H-2A visas are issued in Monterrey, Mexico, where US consular officers issue up to 2,000 H-2A visas a day.

H-2A workers travel to Monterrey, complete application forms and are fingerprinted and photographed, after which their DS-160 visa applications and biometric information is taken to the US consulate for processing. Workers must normally be available for in-person interviews, although many returning H-2A workers are not interviewed.

Hernández-León (2020) emphasizes the key role of the recruiters who select workers and arrange for them to travel to Monterrey. Some recruiters use Facebook to find workers, and some prefer “new” to experienced H-2A workers who may be more cautious and careful about signing contracts.

Recruiters take migrants to DOS-approved document processors in Monterrey, often women who know how to complete US visa applications efficiently, including some who were previously local hires at the US consulate. Recruiters and document processors arrange housing for H-2A workers in Monterrey hotels while the US consulates process the paperwork, which reportedly allows some of the drivers and clerks with whom H-2A applicants interact to extract fees from them.

Both recruiters and document processors coach H-2A applicants to say as little as possible during in-person interviews with US consular officials. Over 90 percent of applicants are approved and, after H-2A visas are stamped in worker passports, workers travel by bus or van to their US workplace. US employers are responsible for all worker-incurred costs, including the $190 cost of the H-2A visa and transportation and food en route to the US workplace. However, employers do not have to reimburse H-2A workers for their expenses until halfway through their contracts.

There is widespread agreement that the recruitment of H-2A workers in Mexico is a “dirty business.” Experienced H-2A workers sometimes charge friends and relatives to introduce them to recruiters who can offer them H-2A contracts. Similarly, some recruiters charge for jobs, and some US employers try to recoup what they paid to Mexican recruiters from H-2A workers after their arrival in the US. Recruiters seek to satisfy US employers, so they blacklist particular workers at the request of employers.

Article 28 of Mexico’s 1970 labor law, revised in 2019, requires that H-2A and other contracts for work abroad to be registered with the Mexican Ministry of Labor. Article 28 explicitly states that employers pay all worker costs, including for recruitment, visa fees, and food and transportation. Mexico had 433 registered labor recruiters in 2019, including nine registered to recruit workers for foreign jobs. Mexico’s MOL conducted 81 inspections of recruiters between 2009 and 2019, and found no violations of Article 28

CDM (2020) surveyed 100 Mexicans who worked in the US with H-2A visas after they returned to Mexico and found that all had experienced at least one “serious” violation of their labor rights, while 94 percent experienced three or more violations.

CDM did not report violations by stage of the H-2A process, viz, recruitment in Mexico, transportation to the US consulate and then to the US workplace, employment and housing in the US, and worker returns to Mexico. CDM emphasized that many workers paid fees in Mexico to obtain H-2A job offers. Speakers of indigenous languages were more likely to report paying recruitment fees and to experience worse conditions in the US than Spanish-only speakers.

Some of the violations reported to CDM are objective, such as below-contract wages. Others are subjective, such as workers who reported feeling unable to quit their jobs. CDM did not distinguish between first-time and repeat H-2A workers, but World Bank worker-cost surveys suggest that returning guest workers are more knowledgeable and experience fewer violations.

Bier, David. 2020. H?2A Visas for Agriculture. Cato.

Centro de los Derechos del Migrante. 2020. Ripe for Reform: Abuse of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program.

Hernández-León. Ruben. 2020. The work that brokers do: the skills, competences and know-how of intermediaries in the H-2 visa programme. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

DOL certified almost 258,000 jobs to be filled by H-2A workers in FY19, and DOS issued almost 205,000 H-2A visas

Mexicans receive over 90 percent of the H-2A visas issued

Jamaicans were not required to have H-2A visas until 2016

The number of farm jobs certified to be filled by H-2A workers doubled between FY14 and FY17

Note—DHS admissions data count each admission of an H-2A holder, so that each entry of an H-2A worker who elects to live in Mexico and commute daily to US farm jobs is counted. Admissions are NOT a count of unique workers

Half of the $39 billion in US farm labor expenses in 2017 was on the FVH farms that accounted for two-thirds of H-2A jobs certified

Farm Labor Expenses, Farm Hired Workers, and H-2A Jobs
  Labor Expenses (thousands $) Labor Share of All Expense Total Hired Workers Share of Hired Workers Share of H-2A Jobs
All Farming $39,230,796 12% 2,411,033 100% 100%
Oilseed and grain farming $4,577,825 5% 323,206 13% 6%
Vegetable and melon farming $4,684,356 29% 226,795 9% 36%
Fruit and tree nut farming $9,008,151 39% 567,607 24% 25%
Greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture $5,376,107 43% 267,399 11% 7%
Tobacco $273,910 25% 22,330 1% 11%
All other crops $2,529,750 13% 225,334 9% 8%
Diary cattle and milk $4,120,273 12% 154,259 6% 0%
Beef cattle ranching and farming $3,236,319 5% 328,329 14% 1%
Hog and pig $1,313,568 6% 71,948 3% 0%
Poultry and egg $1,902,614 6% 71,948 3% 0%
Sheep and goat $126,657 8% 27,171 1% 1%
Animal aquaculture and other animals $1,807,355 20% 128,770 5% 2%
Note: hired workers refers to jobs rather than unique workers, since a worker employed on two farms is counted twice in these data. The hired worker data exclude workers brought to farms by nonfarm support services such as contractors


DOL received over 13,000 employer applications and certified 258,000 jobs to be filled with H-2A workers in FY19

Applications Received1
FYTD Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 % Change FY 2018
13,081 3,175 5,380 2,948 1,578 10.8%
1 "Applications Received" is derived from data not publicly disclosed.


Applications Processed3
Determination FYTD Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Total Determinations 13,095 1,964 5,800 3,357 1,974
 - Certified 12,626 1,880 5,660 3,242 1,844
 - Denied 211 34 67 53 57
 - Withdrawn 258 50 73 62 73
Positions Requested 268,729 36,477 91,161 85,454 55,637
Positions Certified 257,667 35,449 87,868 82,094 52,256
Processed Timely3 86.1% 92.6% 77.5% 85.6% 96.3%
3 Percent of complete H-2A applications resolved 30 days before the start date of need. A complete H-2A application is defined as one containing all the documentation (e.g. housing inspection report, workers' compensation, recruitment report) necessary for the OFLC Certifying Officer to issue a final determination 30 days before the start date of need.


Selected Statistics by Worker Positions Certified
Review of Positions Certified FY 2019 EOY (% of total certified FY 2019 EOY)
Top 10 States Florida 33,598 13.0%
Georgia 29,480 11.4%
Washington 26,226 10.2%
California 23,321 9.1%
North Carolina 21,605 8.4%
Louisiana 10,816 4.2%
Michigan 9,096 3.5%
Kentucky 8,315 3.2%
New York 8,104 3.1%
South Carolina 6,082 2.4%
Top 10 Employers North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) 11,223 4.4%
Fresh Harvest, Inc. 4,812 1.9%
WAFLA 4,369 1.7%
Zirkie Fruit Company 3,400 1.3%
Farm-Op Kuzzens H2A, LLC 2,658 1.0%
Ag Labor, LLC 2,409 0.9%
Foothill Packing, Inc. 2,398 0.9%
Overlook Harvesting Co. 2,396 0.9%
R & R Harvesting, Inc. 2,094 0.8%
Rancho Nuevo Harvesting 2,024 0.8%
Top 10 Crops/Occupation General Farm Workers 31,967 12.4%
Berries4 24,661 9.6%
Tobacco5 16,252 6.3%
Fruits and Vegetables6 13,995 5.4%
Apples7 12,479 4.8%
Melons8 11,876 4.6%
Nursery and Greenhouse Workers 9,885 3.8%
Agricultural Equipment Operators9 9,869 3.8%
Corn10 9,776 3.8%
Tomatoes 6,252 2.4%
4 Berries Category includes Primary Crops of Berries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Cranberries, Raspberries, and Strawberries.
5 Tobacco Category includes Primary Crops of Air-cured, Burley, Cutting, Flue-cured, Setting, Stripping, and Tobacco.
6 Fruits and Vegetables Category includes Primary Crops of Fruits, Fruits and Vegetables, and Vegetables.
7 Apples Category includes Primary Crops of Apple Drops, Apples, and Fuji Apples.
8 Melons Category includes Primary Crops of Canteloupes, Melons, and Watermelons.
9 Agricultural Equipment Operators Category includes Primary Crops of Agricultural Equipment Operator, Custom Combine Harvesters, and Logging.
10 Corn Category include Primary Crops of Corn, and Sweet Corn.

DOL received almost 9,700 employer applications and certified 138,000 jobs to be filled with H-2A workers in the first half of FY20, up 12 percent from the first two quarters of FY19

Applications Received1
FYTD Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 % Change FY 2019
9,671 3,542 6,129 -- -- 13.0%
1 Includes all applications submitted for processing during the reporting period.


Applications Processed
Determination FYTD Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Total Processed 8,925 2,102 6,823 -- --
 - Certified 8,642 1,990 6,652 -- --
 - Denied 131 53 78 -- --
 - Withdrawn 152 59 93 -- --
Positions Requested 143,337 43,072 100,265 -- --
Positions Certified 138,162 40,841 97,321 -- --
Processed Timely2 97.0% 97.8% 96.7% -- --
2 Percent of complete applications resolved not later than 30 days before the start date of need. A complete H-2A application is defined as one containing all the documentation (e.g., housing inspection report, workers' compensation, reruitment report) necessary for OFLC to issue a final determination no later than 30 days before the start date of need.


Review of Positions Certified FY 2020 YTD (% total certified FY 2020 YTD)
Top 10 States of Employment Florida 22,270 16.1%
Georgia 15,127 10.9%
California 12,822 9.3%
Washington 11,035 8.0%
North Carolina 10,268 7.4%
Arizona 6,001 4.3%
Louisiana 5,992 4.3%
Texas 4,352 3.1%
South Carolina 3,517 2.5%
Michigan 3,490 2.5%
Top 10 Occupations (based on SOC Codes) Farmworkers and Laborers, Crop 116,011 84.0%
Agricultural Equipment Operators 10,798 7.8%
Farmworks, Farm, Ranch & Aqua. Animal 8,208 5.9%
Construction Laborers 1,608 1.2%
Agricultural Workers, All Other 721 0.5%
Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers 257 0.2%
First-Line Supervisors of Agricultural Crop and Horticultural Workers 255 0.2%
Graders and Sorters, Agricultural Products 78 0.1%
Farm Equipment Mechanics 68 0.05%
Farm Labor Contractors 49 0.04%
Top 10 Employers (based on unique FEINs) North Carolina Grower's Association, Inc. 5,114 3.7%
Fresh Harvest Incorporated 2,822 2.0%
Foothill Packing, Inc. 2,521 1.8%
WAFLA 1,980 1.4%
Elkhorn Packing, Co. 1,464 11%
Overlook Harvesting Company, LLC 1,442 1.0%
The Growers Company, Inc. 1,127 0.8%
TempLabor, LLC 1,113 0.8%
Manzana, LLC 1,031 0.7%
Alewelt Concrete, Inc. 1,005 0.7%

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