The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used the COVID-19 virus as a reason to increase the usage of H-2A farmworkers already in the United States, but has not (or at least not yet) called for an increase in the number of admissions of these workers.
The rationale is a familiar one. Without mentioning the 20 million or so Americans out of work, or the meager wages paid to farmworkers, DHS stated in an April 15 press release that it is taking this action: "to help U.S. agricultural employers avoid disruptions in lawful agricultural-related employment, protect the nation's food supply chain, and lessen impacts from the coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency."
The two moves authorized by DHS are modest ones, but probably signal more massive ones in the future.
H-2A employers with their papers in order can make use of other employers' H-2A workers if their own ones cannot travel to the United States. Further, H-2A workers who currently can spend only three years consecutively in the United States can, for the moment, stay longer.
The second change is a bow to the western ranchers who employ alien workers as shepherds, who essentially live with the sheep in the fields, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and routinely are paid for only 40 of those hours a week. A few years ago, in a small step toward reform, these workers were told that once every three years they had to go home for a period of time. Those return trips will now be postponed.
The government, of course, had another choice: It could have used whatever tightening there is in the foreign farmworker supply as a lever to encourage agribusiness to reach out to some of the tens of millions of unemployed Americans. But it chose not to do so.