WASHINGTON, D.C. – The American Farm Bureau Federation, along with more than 60 other agriculture groups, sent a letter recently to the Biden administration requesting that agricultural workers be exempted from travel restrictions from South Africa. The “Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease 2019” prohibits travel for individuals from several countries, including South Africa, due to concerns over the omicron variant. The letter also requests flexibility in regard to the “Proclamation on Advancing the Safe Resumption of Global Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which limits entry into the United States to only those fully vaccinated with a CDC-approved vaccine with limited exceptions.

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, requests that the agencies ensure access to these essential members of the agricultural workforce by giving National Interest Exceptions to H-2A workers coming to the United States as outlined in the proclamations as an exception to the travel restrictions. The letter states, “Instead of imposing travel bans that prevent critically needed H-2A workers from traveling to American farms or lead to added transportation costs that do not achieve COVID mitigation goals, farmers, H-2A workers, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department should work together to allow workers taking appropriate health and safety precautions to travel to the United States directly from their home countries.” Workers should be able to travel directly to the United States and can be vaccinated here with a CDC-approved vaccine.

Almost 7,000 guestworkers originate from South Africa, and the majority of them arrive in the U.S. in February, March and April. Many of these H-2A workers have a unique skillset, and American farmers are counting on their timely arrival as they make plans for their upcoming growing seasons. The request for National Interest Exemptions is bolstered by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency designation of food and agricultural workers as essential during the pandemic.

“While protecting our nation from new variants of COVID-19 is critically important, it is in our national interest to ensure production of food, fuel and fiber,” the letter continues. “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.”

Read the full letter here.