The US State Department said that it will make exceptions to its recent travel ban on high-risk Covid countries like South Africa, for workers who meet critical skill requirements for the country’s agriculture sector.
The exemption will be made specifically for those taking part in the H-2 visa program, which the department said is essential to the US economy and food security. The H-2 visas permit US employers to hire foreign workers to come to the United States temporarily and perform agricultural or non-agricultural services due to an expected shortage of domestic labour.
“Therefore, we intend to continue processing H-2 applications for individuals who provide temporary labour or services essential to the United States food supply chain, as permitted by post resources and local government restrictions,” it said.
H-2A and H-2B applicants who fall under the 25 January 2021 Presidential Proclamation – ie, the Covid-19 travel ban, in which South Africa was specifically named – who are necessary to ensure food supply chains, will be considered for excemption.
The department specifically mentioned needing farm workers with skills such as:
The Department said that the applicants applying for a visa will be considered for an exception at the time of interview. While a number of temporary jobs are available through the visa program, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) said that it specifically sent a letter to Secretary of State and Homeland Security requesting an exemption for South African farm labour.
“We appreciate the swift action by the State Department to address a critical need for American agriculture,” said AFBF president Zippy Duvall.
“Farmworkers from South Africa bring valuable and unique skills to the farms on which they are employed. America’s farmers rely on the H-2A program to provide a robust workforce and we are committed to ensuring their safety while continuing to provide healthy, affordable food for families across the country.”
US president Joe Biden introduced new travel restrictions for the United States last week, including a ban on travel to and from South Africa due to the new coronavirus strain. The ban prevents most non-US citizens from entry if they have recently been in South Africa. Biden also reimposed an entry ban on nearly all non-US travellers who have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders.
“We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, in an interview.
Schuchat added the agency was “putting in place this suite of measures to protect Americans and also to reduce the risk of these variants spreading and worsening the current pandemic.”
The variant – currently termed the ‘501.V2 Variant’ – was identified by genomics scientists in South Africa and formally announced by government in late December. The variant was the cause of the second wave and spreads faster than the original virus.