The H-2 visa program built on World War II-era arrangements established by the War Food Administration that brought guestworkers in from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands to labor under contracts similar to those established in the U.S.-Mexico Bracero program. Through the 1940s, thousands of Caribbean guestworkers labored on east coast farms, from Florida to the northeast. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act provided the statutory language to make these arrangements permanent within a nonimmigrant visa category. Unlike previous government-to-government labor agreements, the H-2 visa program allowed U.S. employers to recruit workers directly from any country once the Attorney General accepted their petitions, which gave employers direct control over guestworkers’ visas.
Between 1960 and 1980, an average 12,000 H-2 workers were admitted, and most harvested sugar cane in Florida and performed supplemental seasonal work like apple picking along the eastern seaboard. Poor working and living condition and abuses like wage theft in the sugar cane industry were widespread, generating critical press coverage and several lawsuits. As employers controlled the visas of H-2 workers, when H-2 workers protested their conditions, they were regularly threatened with the cancellation of their visas and deportation. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act divided the H-2 program into two visa programs: H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for non-agricultural workers.
(15) The term “immigrant” means every alien except an alien who is within one of the following classes of nonimmigrant aliens—
(H) an alien having a residence in a foreign country which he has no intention of abandoning (i) who is of distinguished merit and ability and who is coming temporarily to the United States to perform temporary services of an exceptional nature requiring such merit and ability; or (ii) who is coming temporarily to the United States to perform other temporary services or labor, if unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labor cannot be found in this country; or (iii) who is coming temporarily to the United States as an industrial trainee . . . .
SEC. 102. Except as otherwise provided in this Act . . . the provisions of this Act relating to ineligibility to receive visas and the exclusion or deportation of aliens shall not be construed to apply to nonimmigrants . . . .
SEC. 214. (a) The admission to the United States of any alien as a nonimmigrant shall be for such time and under such conditions as the Attorney General may by regulations prescribe . . . .
The question of importing any alien as a nonimmigrant under Section 101 (a) (15) (H) in any specific case or specific cases shall be determined by the Attorney General, after consultation with appropriate agencies of the Government, upon petition of the importing employer. Such petition shall be made and approved before the visa is granted. The petition shall be in such form and contain such information as the Attorney General shall prescribe . . . .
Historian Cindy Hahamovitch uses the term “deportable labor” to describe guestworkers as a migrant “designed to balance employers demands for contingent, less expensive, and presumably pliant foreign labor and native populations’ antipathy toward those same workers.”
See: Cindy Hahamovitch, No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor, (Princeton University Press, 2013), 2.