Agri Pulse: U.S. will lift COVID restrictions on H-2A workers traveling from South Africa

by Steve Davies

The Biden administration will lift restrictions on travel from South Africa Dec. 31, which is good news for farmers and ranchers who are expected to employ about 7,000 workers from that country this growing season.

The administration had imposed the travel ban affecting South Africa and seven other African nations at the end of November but announced Dec. 24 it would be removing the prohibition, citing the spread of the omicron variant in the U.S.

The White House said in a statement that “according to our health and medical experts at the CDC, the value of country-based international travel restrictions is greatest early in an outbreak, before the virus or variant has been widely disseminated. This value declines as domestic transmission starts to contribute a larger proportion of case burden.”

Domestic cases of COVID have been climbing steadily since late October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first confirmed case of the omicron variant was detected in the U.S. in late November, in a traveler from South Africa.

South Africa first reported the presence of the omicron variant to the World Health Organization Nov. 24. The White House imposed the entry restrictions Nov. 29.

“This was never intended to be permanent,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Dec. 23. “It was intended to be temporary.”

More than 60 ag groups asked for flexibility on those restrictions in a Dec. 13 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

“Considering the severe supply chain disruptions taking place, losing access to key employees who originate from these countries because of travel restrictions would further limit agriculture’s ability to grow safe and nutritious food,” they said.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester also sought a lifting of the ban in a Dec. 22 letter in which he said he understood the rationale for limiting travel “immediately after the discovery of [the] Omicron variant in South Africa,” but that it was “now clear that Omicron is the dominant COVID-19 variant in the United States. Continuing to limit travel to and from South Africa will likely do more harm than good, especially for our nation’s farmers who rely on guest workers from South Africa to make ends meet and feed America.”

The Labor Department certified about 318,000 H-2A positions in fiscal year 2021, which ended Sept. 30. About 258,000 visas were issued, with Mexico supplying about 200,000 workers and South Africa second with about 5,500.