Immigration in the Swine Industry: Hiring Foreign-Born Labor
Today’s swine industry is more diverse than ever before. As it becomes more difficult to find a local workforce willing and able to work on American hog farms, many producers rely heavily on foreign-born labor, making up approximately 68% of farm personnel across the United States. Immigration is now a cornerstone of pork production, and a basic understanding of the process and regulations are vital for a successful business. This article is meant to introduce the multi-faceted topic of immigration; however, it should not be considered legal advice.
- Compare and contrast three primary visa types used in the swine industry
- Provide insight into the visa candidate selection processes
- Share experiences with the TN visa process
- Provide best practices for preparing employees to come to the US and helping them assimilate
Overview of Visas in the Swine Industry
The United States has over 200 visa categories, and navigating the various regulations and requirements can be daunting at first. However, the pork industry relies on three major visas: TN, H2A, and J-1. These three are all non-immigrant visas, meaning that individuals with that visa have temporary permission to reside in the United States, with the expectation that they have no intention on staying long-term. The table below describes each of the three in more detail:
|TN Visa||H2A Visa||J1 Visa|
|Countries Available||Mexico and Canada only||86 countries 93% of H2A visa holders from Mexico||200 countries|
|Visa Type||Non-immigrant visa||Non-immigrant visa||Non-immigrant visa|
|Purpose||Provide skilled labor||Provide seasonal agricultural labor||Receive further training in US and return home|
|Timeframe||Year-round 1-4 years at a time||Seasonal 10 months maximum in US, then 2 months off||Year-round 12 month maximum for livestock programs|
|Education Requirements||Completed bachelor’s degree or equivalent in related field||No education requirement||Current college student or recently graduated in related field|
|Language Requirements||No language requirement||No language requirement||English proficiency is tested|
|Employer Support Requirements||Providing support with housing/transportation is optional but recommended||Transportation Housing Meals Travel expenses||Providing support with housing/transportation is optional but recommended|
|Commonly Used Job Titles in Livestock||Animal Breeder or Animal Scientist||Any agriculture-related job title||Intern|
|Pay Requirements||Pay is not federally regulated, negotiation is done as with a domestic employee||Pay is federally regulated, based on state Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) and state minimum wage||Pay is not federally regulated, based on company internship program|
|Option to Bring Dependents||Yes, using a TD Visa||Yes, using an H-4 Visa||Yes, using a J-2 Visa|
|Regulating Authority||NAFTA regulated||U.S. Department of Labor||U.S. Department of State|
Each of the three visas presents the employer with unique pros and cons, and it is up to that individual business to decide which model works best for their labor needs and current regulations. The remainder of this article will focus specifically on best practices related to the TN visa, which is a commonly used and well-known program across the industry.
Visa Candidate Screening and Selection
A brief phone screening is the first recommended step in the candidate selection process. The main purpose of the screening is to verify that the applicant meets the basic requirements of the visa type: in this case, that they have a completed bachelor’s degree in a related field and that they are from Mexico. If they are from another Latin American country or do not meet the education requirements, they are not eligible for the TN visa. In addition, the candidate should already have a valid Mexican passport, which is required throughout the process. Lastly, the recruiter should ask about dependents if the company is willing to process dependent TD visas for a spouse and any children. Like any local applicant, a phone screening can allow the company to vet the individual, answer any pressing questions about the job or the hiring process, and schedule an interview.
The next step is an interview via phone or video call. Some TN candidates may speak English, but the vast majority are most comfortable interviewing in Spanish or utilizing a translator if necessary. During the interview, an ideal candidate will have what we refer to as the 4 S’s: swine experience, support system, salary expectations, and savings.
- Swine/Livestock Experience: The best candidates have a swine and/or animal handling background and are passionate about working with animals. This is important not only because it makes the training process easier but also because it is a strong predictor of job satisfaction. For farm positions, TN candidates can be approved with degrees in many agriculture-related areas, including Animal or Veterinary Science, Agronomy, Agriculture Engineering, Biology, and other similar fields. The most common degree that is used is the Médico Veterinario Zootecnista, or MVZ. This is a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine but is not a direct equivalent to a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine or DVM in the United States. Regardless of the agriculture degree, finding candidates that will have long-term satisfaction working with animals is crucial. If it is apparent that a candidate is solely seeking work in the United States and doesn’t particularly enjoy working with animals, they will not be as successful or as content living and working in the U.S.
- Support System: Ideal candidates have an active support system in the area where they will be living and working. Knowing people in the area is a huge success factor when moving to a foreign country, whether that is a family connection or just a friend that they went to college with. Having a referral program for employees encourages them to utilize their networks and bring strong candidates to a company. In addition, new employees can rely heavily on their connections within the company to help support them in the transition phase of finding a place to stay and assimilating to life in the U.S. While this external support system can offer much needed assistance to the employee and the employer, it is also important to consider employee placement and biosecurity. If a new employee is planning on living or interacting closely with a current employee, the employer needs to be aware and take that into consideration as it pertains to their biosecurity policies.
- Salary and Leadership Expectations: Just as with any local applicant, verifying that the individual’s salary expectations align with what the company is willing to offer is beneficial. In addition, TN applicants are all highly educated, and many have experience managing people. Because of this, the employer must be transparent on what opportunities there are, if any, to grow and develop within their company. As with all employees, being on the same page regarding pay and growth potential reduce turnover rate and improves job satisfaction.
- Savings: Moving to a foreign country can be expensive, and an employee must have sufficient savings. There are many costs associated with finding housing, transportation, food, and household items. Furthermore, employees typically wait a week or two before receiving their first paycheck. A minimum of $1,000 to $2,000 in savings is recommended to make ends meet until the employee gets their first paycheck. This amount can vary greatly depending on the local cost of living and the amount of support provided by the company.
Once the interview has been conducted and the employer is ready to make an offer, negotiation can occur as with any other candidate. Companies can choose to pay their TN employees a salaried or hourly wage; however, the petition letter must have the employee’s pay in a salary format. When an individual’s visa application is being reviewed, their pay is carefully considered, making sure that the offered amount will cover the person’s living expenses, provide sufficient support to any dependents, and will not depress wages in the area. Although execution of the process may vary from company to company, it is common for companies to offer relocation stipends or reimburse costs incurred during the visa process to help employees make a smooth transition into their new communities.
The timeline for acquiring a TN visa varies greatly depending on the response time of the employee and employer, consulate availability, and the approval process. For employees receiving the TN visa for the first time, the timeline varies greatly, ranging from 3-6 months, and possibly even longer. For an employee transferring their current visa from one company to another, the process can take approximately 2-6 weeks, depending on the acceptance of premium processing.
Spouses and children of the employee are eligible to reside in the U.S. with a TD visa for dependents. This process can be done simultaneously at the time of hire or later. Offering this option to employees on a TN visa can be very beneficial, because they are more likely to find satisfaction living in the U.S. if they have their families with them. Dependents with a TD visa are not eligible to work in the U.S.; therefore, they cannot obtain a social security number. They can apply for an ITIN if they need American documentation for insurance or tax purposes. If a dependent wishes to work by obtaining a TN or other visa, their visa application will be handled separately from their spouse. Employees are not obligated, but recommended to add dependents to their insurance coverage once they arrive in the U.S.
Other Cultural Considerations
It is also important to note the differences between American and Mexican cultures: these are small details that can have a big impact. The most significant difference when doing visa paperwork is the naming system found throughout Latin America. Most Latinos have two last names, one from their father and one from their mother. In addition, many have more than one middle name. Americans tend to want to shorten an employee’s name due to space restrictions on a document or just for convenience, but having the person’s full name on all official documents is crucial. If a person is missing one or more of their names on various documents provided by the employer, they are more likely to run into complications during the visa process.
In addition, dates in Mexico are written in a DD/MM/YYYY format. For example, July 31, 2017 would be 31/07/2017. This becomes important when looking at dates on Mexican documents, such as an expiration date on a passport, or an employee’s date of birth on an ID card. If you are writing a document that is intended for both Mexicans and Americans to read, writing out the date in complete form is the best way to avoid confusion and miscommunication.
Lastly, it is commonly known that pesos are the national currency in Mexico. If you are interacting with an employee or prospective employee that has not spent much time in the U.S., it can be helpful to talk to them in pesos as it relates to their compensation offer, the amount of savings recommended, etc.
Offering Stateside Support
Regardless of which visa program a company chooses to pursue, having a plan in place to assist with receiving and assisting employees living in the U.S. is essential. There needs to be a designated point person (or people) responsible for supporting employees through the transition and assisting them with all aspects of their new lives, including housing, transportation, banking, education, obtaining documents such as a driver’s license, social security number, or ITIN, etc. This support person needs to be bilingual, but more importantly, they need to be involved in the community and knowledgeable about their surroundings. Moving to a foreign place and not being able to communicate can be intimidating and overwhelming for many employees, and their first instinct may be to attach to the first person they meet that is knowledgeable and supportive. The ultimate goal is to help the employees help themselves – get them in contact with the right people in the right places, but don’t do all the work for them. The saying that always comes to mind is, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”. As the employer, we are responsible for providing the tools that an employee needs to become self-sufficient over time. One crucial step to becoming self-sufficient in the U.S. is learning English. Many communities offer free English classes, and it is just a matter of making the employee aware of the opportunity. In addition, some companies are starting to invest in their own internal English programs and curriculum to improve communication in their farms.
Visa programs can be an extremely successful employee pipeline for swine companies, provided that they carefully select candidates and offer the needed support to employees upon arrival in the U.S. Each business must decide which visa type or types work best with their company structure and resources and proceed accordingly. Many employees that have employer-sponsored visas are motivated, hardworking, and loyal to companies that support them through the process and treat them well.
References and Citations
Data and Statistics. National Council of Agricultural Employers. Available from: https://www.ncaeonline.org/resources/data-and-statistics/
Fact sheet #26: Section H-2A of the immigration and nationality act (INA). 2010. Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor. Available from: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fact-sheets/26-H2A
H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program. U.S. Department of Labor. Available from: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/eta/foreign-labor/programs/h-2a
Shike, J. 2023. 7 things you need to know before hiring workers from Mexico. Pork Business. Available from: https://www.porkbusiness.com/news/industry/7-things-you-need-know-hiring-workers-mexico?mkt_tok=ODQzLVlHQi03OTMAAAGKPARcqJCIHy8yYxMOtHencrHU4WALHGp9wEwfI7sBTtKf3yTdkAlaAJ-vTG7jV7im2wbjz6LUB1xUygMHUmyEfcChUw3-I6vZZH02O9NbU_ZNCW6M
Visa Programs Available for Agriculture Labor Challenges. 2021. Pork Checkoff. Available from: https://porkcheckoff.org/news/visa-programs-available-for-agriculture-labor-challenges/
Visas for Canadian and Mexican NAFTA Professional Workers. U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs. Available from: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/employment/visas-canadian-mexican-nafta-professional-workers.html/