ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much, Anne for that introduction, and for your leadership at USDA. Good afternoon, everybody.
I really want to thank Secretary Vilsack for being part of this conversation today, and for both his and USDA’s commitment to helping America’s farmers benefit from the tremendous work ethic and experience of guest workers, and his and their commitment to the fair recruitment and treatment of those workers.
That is a commitment shared by Joe Martinez of Cierto Global, who I had the privilege of meeting at the Summit of the Americas in June. I want to thank him and the other recruiters who are joining us today both for the critical linkages they are making between workers in Central America and the United States, and for being with us here this afternoon.
And of course, I want to thank all the agricultural employers who are here today for working together with us on, what as Anne said, is a critical priority – expanding the pool of H-2 farmworkers from Central America, specifically from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Last year, we, at USAID, leaned in hard to increase the number of H-2 temporary workers – both agricultural and non-agricultural workers – from these countries, because we believe it solves three intersecting U.S. challenges at once. First, it gives our American companies a strong pipeline of willing, capable temporary workers. Second, it strengthens the labor protections for those workers who may otherwise be exploited if they pursue unofficial means of securing work. And third, by providing well-paying work to temporary workers who then return to their countries and invest in their communities, it alleviates the conditions that may spur someone to resort to dangerous, irregular migration.
And I can say personally, having talked to so many of these H2A and H2B workers who have come back, what a difference it makes not only to their families but to the communities in which they live. This is exactly what happened in Mexico – recall that it was the expansion of legal, temporary pathways to work in the United States between 2010 and 2019 that slashed irregular migration from Mexico to the United States by one third.
H-2 visas, done right, are a win-win-win for America’s employers, for migrant farmworkers, and for the economies of our Central American neighbors – the kind of trifecta that is so rare in Washington.
That is why we worked directly with labor ministries in Central America to dramatically decrease the time it takes to match H-2 workers to employer’s requests – from 55 days to 16 in Guatemala, and these numbers are still going down every day – from 24 days to nine days in Honduras, and from 42 days to 30 days in El Salvador. Again this is a work in progress. This is why we worked with the State Department to prioritize H-2 visa applications, to the point where now our consular sections can process them in two business days. And that is why we helped ethical recruiters like Cierto make crucial linkages with American companies like Stemilt and AgSocio.
As a result of this engagement, last year I’m proud to say we achieved a record number of H2 visas issued from these three countries – a nearly 40 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels. And this year, we expect to double last year’s record high to around 19,000. So that’s good.
But here’s the bad news.
Nearly all of that growth, that I just described notwithstanding the new efficiencies achieved, is coming from the issuance of H-2B visas for non-agricultural workers. Despite persistent farmworker shortages in the United States, the number of H2-A visas issued to Central Americans is actually lower today than it was in 2018. Canada, with around one-sixth as much farmland as America, last year issued over ten thousand more temporary agricultural visas to these countries than we did. And they are recruiting there because they see the tremendous farming expertise that exists in these countries. Around 16 percent of El Salvador’s workforce is employed in agriculture, around one-third of Guatemala’s and Honduras’ workforces are employed in agriculture. For over a decade, USAID, on the ground through our Missions and our implementing partners, has worked with thousands of farmers from these countries to boost their yields, take advantage of new technologies, improve harvest efficiency, and reduce loss.
Now, this relatively modest recruitment of farmworkers from Northern Central America is not without reason. We really get that. For many of you, engaging in the H-2A program comes with both costs and risks, and with a lot of bureaucratic hoops to navigate. Many of you have worked for years with H-2A workers from Mexico and may worry about switching things up – bringing in workers from other countries. Some of you might not be familiar with the skills and work ethic of the farmworkers in Central America. Some of you might wonder whether ethical recruiters are operating on the ground there. And above all, you might be wondering whether the United States government will be there to support you – to expedite visas, to advertise opportunities so you don’t bear all the costs, to make sure you have access to pools of experienced and capable workers, workers that will meet your needs.
I’m here to say that we have got your back. We are committed to making sure H-2A visas are issued by consular officers just as fast as H-2B visas. Again, those timelines are getting compressed every day. We are committed to doing what we can to facilitate the work of ethical recruiters like Cierto that are operating or establishing operations in northern Central America. We are committed to working directly with the governments in these three countries to advertise opportunities and help strengthen their procedures for recruiting, matching, and educating workers. And we are committed to helping maintain a strong pipeline of experienced farmworkers to support you.
And because the H-2A program is uncapped, unlike H2B, it is uncapped and because it is expanding by over 30,000 workers every year, employing any new H-2A farm workers from northern and Central America does not have to come at the expense of any Mexican farmworkers that you currently rely on.
We have farmworkers eager for opportunities, and we have strengthened the systems necessary to help them take advantage of temporary work. All that is missing is the agricultural employers in America who are willing to work with them. But I really hope, with USAID and the U.S. government by your side, we can help provide what are truly life-changing opportunities to these farmworkers, and help you all benefit from their hard work, and help our country grapple seriously with the challenge of irregular migration from Central America in a vital, necessary, and humane way.
I can’t think of a better transition now to turn things over to Secretary Vilsack to describe in even more detail, the Biden-Harris Administration’s desire to work with all of you.
Thank you so much.