Visa Interviews Finally Required for Jamaican H-2A Guestworkers

By David North on February 5, 2016

World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but one of its questionable emergency immigration arrangements for foreign farm workers lingered in place until yesterday.

In order to get the farm workers to America quickly — at a time when we had a genuine labor shortage — Franklin D. Roosevelt's State Department waived the existing procedures and allowed foreign farm workers from various Caribbean islands to come directly to the United States without the usual visa interview.

The workers — and politically more importantly, their employers in sugar cane, citrus, apples, and other crops — liked the lack of the interview, and the procedure (or non-procedure) stayed in place for decades after the end of WWII.

Most of the workers came from Jamaica, then part of the British Empire, but some came from other islands, all colonies. Since then, most of those islands have become independent nations, and the sugar cane harvest in the United States switched from many guys with machetes to very few workers running mechanical harvesters — but the old policy stayed in place.

The Caribbean farm workers were the only foreign work force from anywhere in the world coming to the United States without visas.

The screening before they got on the plane (in Jamaica) started with the Caribbean version of a Tammany Hall process. For years, and maybe still, newcomers to the H-2A program had to get the approval of their members of parliament before they could be interviewed by the representatives of the employers. Returning workers who had pleased their U.S. employers did not go through that routine.

Yesterday the Departments of Homeland Security and State announced that from now on:

[C]ertain Caribbean residents seeking to come to the United States as H-2A agricultural workers will be required to have both a valid passport and a visa.

The U.S. embassy in Kingston has long been on record as advocating the new policy, even though it represented an increase in its workload, but nothing was done to change matters even though after 9/11 some critics, including a general or two, stated their worries about possible security breaches.

I can see, among others, three quite different forces coming to bear on the hoary tradition, an interesting mix:

  1. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) started with a written question included in a committee hearing record back in 2014 (see p. 177), asking why this tradition persisted.
  2. Among the numerous State Department cables released to the public in the Wikileaks operation was a cable from the embassy in Kingston calling for a change in the procedure.
  3. A vehement jihadist Muslim cleric, Abdullah el-Faisal, jailed in England for four years for soliciting murder and then deported back to Jamaica by the Brits, may have, by his presence on the island, encouraged the U.S. government's move.

Although the new regulation nominally applies to many of the Caribbean islands, including those run by the French and the Dutch, the real impact will be on Jamaican workers. I have been told that the East Coast apple industry fought the change tooth and nail.