Taylor Rock, production supervisor at Heimerl Farms based in Johnstown, Ohio, spoke at the Annual Four Star Pork Industry Conference held in Muncie, Indiana in September. Rock shared his experience working with TN visas used to recruit and secure on-farm labor in the US.
“I have experience and an idea about how to help you save some money and continue to staff your farms,” said Rock. “There are a few different options for visas. I’m going to lean more towards TN status visas. I struggle with H-1B, H-2A and J-1 visas because I’m more of a longevity type of person, and the restrictions on those programs are a lot more time sensitive than the TN.”
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created special economic and trade relationships between the US, Canada and Mexico. The TN non-immigrant classification permits qualified Canadian and Mexican citizens to seek temporary entry into the United States to engage in business activities at a professional level.
“To engage in business activities at a professional level” offers a very broad spectrum of what can be included in that definition. There are different types of professionals including accountants, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists and teachers.
“Our industry works mostly with scientists. I have dabbled a little bit with engineers, but that’s a more of a difficult process to work with,” he said. “Citizens of Canada and Mexico are eligible. One thing that you must have is a degree or licensure. They need to have a position in the US that specifically requires a NAFTA professional. They need to have pre-arranged full or part-time employment and qualifications to practice within that profession. The qualifications notation is more for veterinary medicine background candidates who are trying to get their doctorate.”
Canadian citizens are eligible to enter the US without a visa but will need proof of citizenship, an employer letter and a credentials evaluation, which involves a government official checking their documents to make sure they’re legitimate. Canadian are not required to apply for a TN visa.
“What I’ve seen is that a lot of Mexican citizens like to go to Canada because Canada has a much more attractive citizenship program than the US,” he said. “I’ve worked mostly with Mexican citizens, and they are required to obtain a visa for the United States.”
Mexican citizens are required to bring the following to their interview to obtain a visa to enter the US:
- Non-immigrant visa application – DS-160; it’s about $200 for the application
- Employer letter from whoever they’re going to work with
- Documentation proving that they meet the minimum education and/or work experience requirements
“In the swine industry, we tend to work with animal breeders, which is how we classify it in the US,” he explained. “On my farms, I have people with veterinary medicine backgrounds, agronomy, different types of horticulture, and we just hired someone with experience on a shrimp farm. All they have to have is an agricultural background of some sort in science.”
In 2022 and earlier, applicants were only eligible for three years, but in 2023 the period of stay was extended to four years. After the four years, you either renew or terminate their employment.
“The applicant has the option to return to Mexico and re-interview through the whole process again and obtain their visa,” he said. “However, the employer also has the option to file form I-129, which allows you to extend their visa stateside for up to another four years. That does go to the end of their passport date, so I always remind people to make sure that their passports are longer than four years. To renew visas and passports, you’re able to do all of that in the US, and you can indefinitely renew visas. If you have people who want to renew their visas for eight years, that’s somebody I want to help out and help them get their citizenship. That’s a long-term employee for me.”
Need a lawyer?
The answer is technically no, you don’t need a lawyer. Rock said he has processed quite a few TN visa applicants without a lawyer. Using a lawyer is a more expensive process, and Rock says it takes a little bit longer. With a lawyer, there’s typically a recruiting fee of $250 to $500, plus the processing fee of $1,500-$2,000 which includes filling the paperwork and writing a letter. Plus, the TN applicant’s airfare which is about $500- $1,000. Rock said his company typically elects to pay for airfare because most candidates don’t have an abundance of cash on-hand. The company also buys supplies ($250), which includes basic necessities to get them started.
“Per applicant, you’re looking at $2,500 with a lawyer plus all the time working with a lawyer back and forth,” he said. “I’ve had employees that have resigned and gone back to Mexico and then returned. I have a recruiting benefit that I give to employees if they send me people. So, I quite literally now have created such a large network, I have people reaching out to me every other day looking for a job.”
Given his pool of candidates, his recruiting cost is now $0. The TN airfare and supplies are still needed, but an employer can save $1,750 by doing the process on their own. Rock says that you “absolutely can do it” on your own.
“It’s always going to start with recruitment, whatever that looks like in your system,” said Rock. “I recommend using Microsoft Teams for interviews; you can do a video chat and it will pop up with translation services verbally on the bottom of the screen. Then you can communicate back and forth, and you don’t have to pay extra for an interpreter.”
- Find your candidate and make an offer.
- The candidate schedules their visa interview. The candidate does not have to schedule the interview herself/himself; the employer is able to schedule for them. Currently, Rock said appointments are scheduling about three months out. Candidates can monitor appointments online and sometimes get their appointments moved up.
- Employer writes offer letter once appointment is set up.
- The rest of this process is very simple and automatic. The visa candidate will have two interviews: 1) a document check in Mexico to ensure they have all the right paperwork and that they meet all the requirements for the visa program. 2) more intense interview where they’re questioned by consular officer. The officer will go through nearly line by line on the letter that the employer wrote, asking the candidate questions about what their duties will be in the US. Rock said he sends the letter a few weeks before the interviews so the candidates can review and prepare.
- After the second interview, the candidate will get an approval notice saying they’ll receive their visa within one to two weeks or a denial letter indicating why the visa was denied. Most denials occur because the candidate does not have strong enough ties to Mexico. The consular officers want to see that they’re going to be coming back to Mexico in the future, and they want that money coming back to Mexico. If denied, Rock asks candidates to gain some experience like an internship in the swine industry. This provides more paperwork showing an interest in agriculture.
- If approved, Rock recommends arranging travel within a week of receiving the visa.
Writing an offer letter
Offer letters are usually two to three pages long, and it starts with an explanation of why you’re unable to fill the roles within your operation with local workers.
“I use words like need, necessity, and pertinent,” said Rock. “Include details about your operation and about what impact your operation has on the industry and what impact this employee is going to have on your operation. Offer a description of the position and all the tasks that your employees will be doing. They are labeled as an animal breeder, so I always like to start off with artificial insemination and then I follow up with biosecurity, treatments and whatever you’re going to have them do.”
The terms of the agreement made with the candidate should be included, along with the pay rate, benefits, hours and employment terms. A description of the qualifications for NAFTA and the position is needed. On the NAFTA website there’s a section you can copy and paste that is relevant to the swine industry about what NAFTA is and why it’s eligible, according to Rock.
The letter must be signed and dated within 30 days of the applicant’s interview.
Candidate is approved. What should you do next?
There are a few things that the employer should provide to make the new employee’s life a little easier and less stressful when they arrive.
Assistance with housing. Candidates are coming without a social security card, no bank account, no background information, so securing their own housing would be very difficult. You can either apply for housing on their behalf or Rock recommends making housing part of their compensation package.
Basic supplies. Rock suggests thinking about it like going off to college – bedding, towels, soap, laundry detergent, a dresser, hangers, etc. People often travel 20 to 30 hours on airplanes, and the last thing they want to do when they get to the US is to go to Walmart to get the basics.
Airport transportation. Rock says he picks them up at the airport with details on what he looks like, what his vehicle looks like and which door to come out. Then he takes them to a restaurant to get dinner.
Start up cash. Plan to give them a little bit of startup cash, like $100. It gives them enough to started, get groceries and hold them over until that first paycheck comes through.
It’s not required, but it certainly helps to be as supportive of your new employees as you can.
“It’ll make your lives a lot easier if you help them get their social security cards when they’re able to get fill out the I-9 forms and also to help them get a bank account,” he said. “Getting a Social Security card is a very easy process. I’ve spent no more than 20 minutes per applicant in the Social Security office. They just need their passport, their visa and their I-94. Creating a bank account often requires an employer letter because they have no reference showing that they are going to have continued income. Getting a driver’s license or transportation can be a little bit more difficult because it only goes until the end of their visa, so they always have to renew.”
Something to consider is creating housing or transportation like a van to go back and forth from your farm locations. Also, Rock recommends that employees do a visa extension. If they do it stateside, Rock’s company will pay the fees. If the employee wants to go back to Mexico and renew their visa, they pay the costs.
“I like to pay for stateside and tell employees that when they’re going back to Mexico, they should be going on vacation and not have to go back and do a lot more work,” he said.
Communication is key
Communication can be a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to help develop talent.
“When I started at a farm, I had eight employees that only spoke Spanish, so I very quickly learned how to speak Spanish,” he said. “But you can find a lot of bilingual candidates, and majority of the candidates really want to learn English badly. One thing that I would recommend is spending an hour a week as part of their compensation and creating a program where employees can learn Spanish and English together. There’s a lot of really talented people, and it’s unfortunate to see team members get overlooked because of a communication barrier. If we break down those walls of communication, we really have a lot of opportunity to find motivated people that want to progress themselves and the industry.”
Rock offers some tips to help:
- Use WhatsApp or email to connect initially because cellular service can be unreliable in Mexico.
- When they’re traveling, WhatsApp works well and can always be used wherever there’s WiFi.
- Google Translate isn’t always consistent.
“Again, the vast majority want to learn English,” he said. “Share your culture and your language. Everybody comes from a different background, and it can be fun to experience their culture too. For example, birthdays are a really, really big deal. Every time we have a birthday there’s a big party at one of the farms. The employee celebrating gets a hat and glasses and a birthday cake. Things like that go a really long way.”