US lifts travel restrictions for certain South African workers

Skilled South African farm workers exempted from US travel ban thanks to lobby groups.

The US State Department has confirmed that it will allow certain South Africans an exemption from its blanket travel ban. In January, President Joe Biden’s administration announced a temporary travel ban on anyone coming from South Africa. The American Farm Bureau Federation and US Custom Harvesters Association and others worked immediately to change the decision.

On 29 January, the administration amended the decision and announced that H-2A visa holders from South Africa are considered “essential workers”.

South African farm workers, specifically those skilled in operating equipment and machinery, are highly sought-after in the US. The H-2A programme allows US farmers to hire migrant labour to assist with planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Those in possession of the H-2A visa, as well as certain H-2B travellers will be granted an exemption to travel and operate in the US, given that they play an essential role in securing the country’s food chain.

In 2019, around 275,000 workers entered the US on H-2A visas. While more than 90% of these labourers arrived from Mexico, South Africans accounted for the second most in-demand workers.

Just over 7,000 South Africans successfully obtained H-2A visas in 2019, according to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Of these, approximately, 5,000 temporary work visas were awarded to skilled machinery operators.

South Africans with the ability to operate and repair tractors, balers, combine harvesters, ploughs, planters, and sprayers are especially valuable to US farmers.

Those who will be exempted from the travel ban this year include seafood processors, fish cutters, salmon roe technicians, farm equipment mechanics, agriculture equipment operators and any other farmworkers listed as “essential for the food supply chain”.

The US State Department said the H-2 programme is essential to the economy and food security of the country, and is a national security priority.