Did the Surge at the Southern Border Discourage Use of the H-2A Program?

No. The (nearly hidden) tax break for ag employers keeps the visas coming

By David North on October 23, 2023

As we previously reported, the H-2B program for non-skilled, non-ag workers has been reduced substantially as employers tapped into the surge at the southern border.

Why, employers seem to be saying, should we put up with the nuisances of government-run and fee-heavy programs when we can hire some of those legal-ish aliens that the Biden administration is admitting in vast numbers — and we can do so legally?

Has the same dynamic impacted the somewhat similar H-2A program for alien farm workers? H-2B is for unskilled, non-ag workers; H-2A is for unskilled ag workers.

To find out, we used the same measure we used before: the issuance of H-2A visas in five nations important to the H-2A program in August 2022 and in August 2023. The nations are in descending number of the H-2A visas issued, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Honduras. The Northern Triangle countries play only a minor role in H-2A but we wanted to keep the list of countries constant in this comparison.

This is what we found:

Issuance of H-2A Visas in Selected Nations in August 2022 and August 2023

Nation August 2022 August 2023
Mexico 24,941 25,226
Guatemala 135 121
El Salvador 2 1
Jamaica 1,511 1,425
Honduras 45 44
Total 26,634 26,817

Source: “Monthly Nonimmigrant Visa Issuance Statistics”, U.S. State Department.

So the surge at the southern border did not make a dent on the H-2A program. In fact, the August 2023 visa issuances were slightly larger than those in August 2022; there were, in fact, 183 more of them.

Why the different impacts of the surge on these two programs when we are examining the inflows from the same five nations in two very similar programs? It is possible, but unlikely, that the surge includes very few farm workers, for example.

My best guess — and the media will never mention this variable — is that the ag employers are still using the H-2A program, while the non-ag employers are shying away from the H-2B program, for one simple, nearly hidden reason: H-2A costs less than H-2B.

You see, the H-2A program does not require that growers pay payroll taxes, but the H-2B program does. The H-2A employers/growers save about 8 percent of payroll by being allowed to avoid the costs related to payroll taxes that fund the Medicare, Social Security, and federal unemployment insurance trust funds; their workers are similarly treated. Thus, our elderly, our sick, and our unemployed are subsidizing the H-2A employers, but not the ones in H-2B.

And so the surge at the southern border has not tempted the ag employers to use this suddenly available work force, one that is being used by the non-ag employers.

Farm Workers from South Africa. One of the things I learned from this exercise is that the third-largest supplier of H-2A workers in August 2023, after Mexico and Jamaica, was South Africa. It provided 466 workers in August 2022 and 638 of them in the following August. We have written in the past about the employment of apparently white H-2A farm workers from South Africa in the deeply poor, and deeply Black, Mississippi Delta. These workers are not only brought in, at considerable expense, from the other side of the Atlantic, but also from the other side of the Equator. One hates to think about the motivations for such a hiring practice.