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H2 Visas - Temporary Laborers

H2 visas are intended for unskilled or skilled laborers (not professional or degreed employees) to work in the U.S. on a temporary or seasonal basis.  They are petition-based visas, meaning that a U.S. employer must submit a request for the workers by obtaining a Labor Certification from the U.S. Department of Labor and receiving the Notice of Approval (I-797) of the petition from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

H2 visas were initiated in 1943 with the importation of workers to fill a labor shortage in the sugar cane industry.  The first workers in the program came from the Bahamas to be cane cutters.  The program changed significantly in the 1980s with the division of H2 visas into two categories, which are still in place today:
H2A - agricultural workers (planting and harvesting crops)
H2B - non-agricultural workers (e.g., landscaping, construction, forestry-planting or cutting, hotel cleaning staff)

Know Your Rights: See Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act for legislation on workplace conditions that affect H2 workers.

The Cap

H2B visas are subject to an annual limit set by Congress.  This cap is currently 66,000 workers per year.  H2A visas are not limited.

For more information on and the current status of the cap, see the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) webpage: Current Cap Count for Non-Immigrant Worker Visas.

Requesting H2 Workers

  1. Labor Certification – The Department of Labor (DOL) certifies that the work meets the definition for H2A or H2B and that all necessary steps have been completed to determine that no U.S. citizens are available for or that they are unwilling to do the work.
  2. I-129 Petition – This petition is submitted to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which determines the number of workers authorized and the duration for which the petition is valid.  The Consulate General does not provide case status information for I-129 petitions.  DHS provides electronic filing for immigration benefits on the USCIS webpage.
  3. Visa – The Department of State verifies that the workers requested on an I-129 petition are eligible for H2 visas under U.S. immigration law.

Important Information

  • H2 visas are only valid for the company named on the visa. It is not legal to switch from one company to another without written permission from the Department of Homeland Security.

    Workers are allowed a window of 10 days to arrange their affairs and travel back to Mexico once their visas have expired. This is NOT 10 extra days of work time.

    Workers MUST return their I-94 forms at the border when returning to Mexico once their work time has ended. This is how they prove that they did not overstay in the U.S. (NOTE: H2 visas are "multiple entry" visas. This means that the workers can come back to Mexico for a short time to visit family or take care of necessary business, etc. and then return to the U.S. to continue their jobs. On these short visits to Mexico, it is not necessary to turn in the I-94 at the border.)

    Extensions are available from the Department of Homeland Security for H2 visas. Petitioners must apply for an extension of their petition BEFORE it expires. The workers can remain in the U.S. for a period of time while their extension is being adjudicated without being "out of status" even if the extension is ultimately refused. Applicants who received extensions do not need to receive a new visa if they remain in the U.S. Once they return to Mexico for a visit, they will need to apply for a new visa to re-enter the U.S.