'The watermelons will rot': U.S. visa confusion keeps out agriculture workers

Coming from all over Mexico, these 100 or so farm workers were hoping to secure visas that would allow them to head north to the United States to pick produce. It's a scene that plays out every year in the Mexican city of Monterrey. Men with big suitcases waiting in line at the U.S. consulate to pick up their H-2A temporary agriculture worker visas.

But this time around it's different.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak and new restrictions at the border, many of the workers, like Abad Hernandez, an onion picker, are stuck in Mexico during one of the busiest times of the season.

(SOUNDBITE) (Spanish) ONION PICKER, ABAD HERNANDEZ, SAYING:

"There is confusion. Because none of us know what is going to happen, if they're going to give us a visa or not. But as I told you, they say that agriculture workers are priority in the U.S."

Despite the need for a stable food supply amid the pandemic, the H-2A guest worker program has been saddled with COVID-19-related delays and confusion.

First - the quickly spreading virus drove the U.S. State Department to stop routine visa applications starting March 18. Then - after produce companies lobbied for exemptions for agriculture workers, the State Department last week said they would waive in-person interview requirements for many H-2A applicants.

Still, the process has been riddled with delays, with the U.S. consulate in Monterrey working to process the visas with a limited staff.

A recruiter who had enlisted dozens of men for the Florida watermelon harvest, was turned away along with all the men.

As he boarded a bus with his recruits, he told Reuters they "got screwed" and that the watermelons back in Florida "will rot."

Video Transcript

- Coming from all over Mexico, these 100 or so farm workers were hoping to secure visas that would allow them to head north to the United States to pick produce.

It's a scene that plays out every year in the Mexican city of Monterrey, men with big suitcases waiting in line at the US consulate to pick up their H-2A temporary agriculture worker visas. But this time around, it's different. Amid the coronavirus outbreak and new restrictions at the border, many of the workers, like Abad Hernandez, an onion picker, are stuck in Mexico during one of the busiest times of the season.

ABAD HERNANDEZ: [SPEAKING SPANISH]

INTERPRETER: There is confusion, because none of us know what is going to happen, if they're going to give us a visa or not. But as I told you, they say that agriculture workers are a priority in the US.

- Despite the need for a stable food supply amid the pandemic, the H-2A guest worker program has been saddled with COVID-19-related delays and confusion. First, the quickly spreading virus drove the US State Department to stop routine visa applications starting March 18. Then, after produce companies lobbied for exemptions for agricultural workers, the State Department last week said they would waive in-person interview requirements for many H-2A applicants.

Still, the process has been riddled with delays, with the US consulate in Monterrey working to process the visas with a limited staff. One recruiter, who had enlisted dozens of men for the Florida watermelon harvest, was turned away, along with all the workers. As he boarded a bus with his recruits, he told Reuters that they got screwed and that the watermelons back in Florida will rot.