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The typical guestworker: not who you think

ag workers

Who is a guestworker in the United States?

You may have a picture in your mind: a migrant Hispanic out working out in the fields.

How about someone from India with a college education?

richard smoley produce blueprints

What accounts for the largest number of workers in the federal guestworker programs? Statistics reported in Rural Migration News, published by the University of California at Davis, may disrupt the picture you hold in your mind:

“There were about 2.1 million foreigners with temporary work permits in the U.S. in 2019, making over one percent of U.S. workers guest workers.

“Three types of workers dominated among guest workers. Almost 600,000 or 30 percent of guest workers were H-1B college graduates, often Indian IT workers employed year round, followed by 335,000 L-1 intra-company transfers that also frequently involve IT workers. The next largest group included about 225,000 exchange visitors with J-1 visas, often college students who work for three to six months in the U.S., and 225,000 F-1 foreign students, who can work part-time while studying and full-time during school breaks.

“There were about 200,000 H-2A farm workers and 160,000 H-2B nonfarm workers who filled seasonal U.S. jobs. These six of the 24 temporary work visa categories account for over 85 percent of foreign workers.”

That is, less than 10 percent of legal guestworkers in the U.S. were employed on the farm.

“The H-2 category allows U.S. employers to bring noncitizens into the U.S. on temporary agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) visas,” explains one government website.

The H-3 category allows for noncitizens coming temporarily to the United States to either receive training or to participate in a special education exchange visitor training program.”

Qualifications for the H-1B category are so utterly bizarre that you must read them verbatim:

“This nonimmigrant classification applies to people who wish to perform services in a specialty occupation, services of exceptional merit and ability relating to a Department of Defense (DOD) cooperative research and development project, or services as a fashion model of distinguished merit or ability.”

You may not have anybody to pick your apples, but rest assured that our nation’s government will never countenance a shortage of beautiful women and men.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.