Northern Central America Initiative Trip Report

On October 12th, DHS announced its intent to release an additional 20,000 H-2B visas specifically to the Northern Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as Haiti. Given that this is a priority of the Biden administration, we have made it our mission to promote the availability of these additional visas to our membership and to the broader H-2B community. To this end, we hosted a Northern Triangle Summit in early December. We produced this video. The purpose of the video was to explain the process to our membership.

We then scheduled another showcase February 25th – March 5th in Guatemala and El Salvador, providing our agents and employer members the opportunity to meet government partners and interview prospective workers. SEA board member Terry Forrester, owner of Labor Consultants International, joined us at our December summit. After observing the process, he decided he would promote Northern Triangle workers to his 400+ clients, 12 of whom attended the showcase. They interviewed over 700 workers and plan to hire over 400 Guatemalan and Salvadoran workers.

SEA members The Heartland Group and The Pattie Group also attended. Heartland owns over two dozen landscape branches throughout the United States. Heartland plans to hire 175 Northern Triangle workers for this upcoming season.

Over the last two years, we have worked closely with DHS to ensure the success of this initiative. DHS’ decision to allocate additional H-2B visas to these countries is a huge incentive for employers to pursue Northern Triangle workers.  Therefore, we invited Kamal Essaheb, Senior Counselor to DHS Secretary Mayorkas, to our event to observe the H-2B program infrastructure firsthand.

In Guatemala, he sat in on the roundtable discussion at the US Embassy, attended the meeting with the Guatemalan president and toured one of their worker training facilities. In El Salvador, he toured the mass hire event and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) Labor Mobility Office. At the MOFA, he was able to observe a worker pre-departure briefing.

An interesting aside, at this meeting I approached one of the workers. I asked him where he was headed and he said Myrtle Beach. I ask him what his job was going to be and he said laundry attendant. It turned out I was speaking with one of the workers Melissa Bilka interviewed at our NT Summit and Veronica’s mass hire event in December! This is how the process to supposed to work: interviewed, hired, then traveling to a job a few short months later.

A few other notes:

  • DHS remains focused on the Northern Triangle initiative.  It is in our interest to fully utilize the 20,000 visas and the administration is willing to do whatever it can to increase awareness of the available visas. If the allocation is not fully exhausted (or if we do not at least come close) this is going to affect the administration’s ability to help us secure additional visas in the future.
  • Guatemala Embassy meeting- On Monday, we toured the brand-new Embassy in Guatemala City. It is located in the beautiful new neighborhood of Cayala (feels like you are in Europe).
    • USAID goal is for ministry to process 30% of total number of visas, private recruiters remaining 70%.
    • Embassy hours are M-Th, half day Fridays
    • Currently processing roughly 150 H-2 applicants per day, have capacity to process 250 total visas per day.  While this is a small number compared to Mexico, if all remaining 15,000 NT visas were split between the 3 countries, it would only take a month to process 5,000 Guatemalan workers.
    • Passports are usually issued within one week of request.  Guatemalan government prioritizes passport requests made through the ministry.
    • Approved visas are ready for pickup the next business day after issuance. According to US Embassy, 99% are sent via Cargo Express for the benefit of the recruiter.  However, it appears the ministry also has the option to pick up their visas on-site.
    • Passports are mailed by Cargo Express, take 1-2 days to arrive anywhere in country.
    • The shortcomings of the appointment scheduling software used by the NT countries were repeatedly raised during the Embassy meeting. We are hopeful DHS may be helpful in addressing the issues with Travel Docs. In the meantime, the problems (including those listed below) were heard loud and clear and will be passed along.
      • Confirmation email does not include petition number
      • Cannot pick date for appointment
      • MRV payments- can only use credit card once per hour
    • El Salvador Notes:
      • Processing capacity of probably 150 – 250 appointments per day.  They set the Atlas (AKA Travel Docs) system to allow employers to schedule as many workers as possible so the employer can essentially pick the day they want to drop off the passports.  However, this also means that what is normally a 3 day process can take a week or more if they receive an abundance of visas to be processed at the same time.
      • Ministry of Foreign Affairs held 15 mass hiring events in past two years, and have 4 more scheduled in the next month.
      • Embassy has 95% approval rate for recruited workers, with about 15% needing an interview.
      • El Salvador has the 2ndmost consulates in the US (behind Mexico) to support the workers abroad.
    • Employer feedback Re: Guatemalan v. Salvadoran workers
      • The landscape employers who were present at the hiring events stated that they found the Salvadoran job candidates to be well vetted, engaged, and qualified.
      • One company was there to recruit right of way vegetation management workers. This employer had better luck in Guatemala (will be requesting 16 Guatemalans and 4 Salvadorans).
      • The construction employer was impressed with the candidates from both countries.
      • The ministries did a poor job of recruiting workers for the forestry employers. They did not recruit the right type of workers. The forestry employers left almost empty handed (expect one employer who interviewed referrals of his current workers in El Salvador. The ministry even provided transportation for these workers to the mass hire event. Very gracious!).

The takeaway was that the workers from both countries were capable of doing more routine H-2B jobs such as landscaping, but are not currently well suited for more niche jobs, like forestry, that require more specific training. The ministries said they recruit from all over the country (urban and rural), so perhaps they need to expand their recruitment efforts to target those working manual labor jobs or agricultural jobs.  I heard some of the employers talking about the ministry recruiting via social media (which is less likely to find the individuals working manual labor jobs), so maybe they can brainstorm on how to more effectively reach workers in rural areas who do not have social media.

We concluded the trip with a relaxing stay at Paraiso Escondido. Two employers said they had traveled all over the world and had never been somewhere as beautiful as Paraiso Escondido. High praise!

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