Essential Workers: The visa program keeping Americans fed

H-2A workers are a lifeline for farms and the country’s food supply system

Stay-at-home orders have redefined where work happens in America. When the widening coronavirus pandemic shut down entire cities, more than 20 million lost their jobs, and millions more were forced to work from home.

But in farms across America, armies of immigrant farmworkers never stopped. Their work was deemed essential, too critical to be halted during the crisis.

Kneeling on damp soil and fighting the heat, as many as 2.7 million laborers, more than half born outside the United States, are the lifeline of our food security.

The pandemic has raised the stakes, and now these laborers’ work has brought a bittersweet recognition of the women and men going into the fields every day, without whom we would not have food to eat.

Yet these are also some of the most vulnerable communities in America, especially those under the H-2A temporary agricultural program, whose visas are tied to their employers.

Seasonal agricultural workers face tough working conditions. Many lack adequate health care. Many don’t speak English. But they are hired and brought here from thousands of miles away because Americans ultimately do not want to work on farms.

“Literally, without this program, Americans don’t eat,” said Carlos Ordaz Jr., manager at Rosa’s Garden, a small farm in Mechanicsville, Va.

And just like every immigrant before them, they come for the promise of a better future if they work hard enough. But now, these guest workers also carry the responsibility to feed America.

Additional Reporting by Drea Cornejo in Florida, James Pace-Cornsilk in California and José Martínez and Mauricio Villa in Mexico. Animation by Daron Taylor.

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