Because of the uniqueness of the sheep industry, sheep producers have successfully participated under special provisions of the H-2A program designed by the Department of Labor since the 1950s. The most significant difference is that sheepherders can be authorized to work in the United States for up to three years for the same employer without departing the country, while other H-2A workers can only work for the same employer for up to 10 months before departing the United States or going to work for another employer.
Because of these provisions, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) also decided that the sheep industry be treated differently for the purpose of out-of-country requirements. As a result, INS decided that any period of absence from the United States qualified a sheepherder for a new three-year period of eligibility.
In its revisions to the H-2A regulations that took effect on Jan. 17, 2009, the Bush Administration rejected this long-standing policy and, for the first time, imposed a three month out-of-country stay requirement for sheepherders. Sheep farmers and ranchers were, therefore, prepared to adapt to the new three-month requirement. However, a number of I-94 visa applications have not been approved in recent weeks prompting industry concern about confusion or interpretation of the regulations particularly as it regards retroactive application of the rules prior to January 2009.
Sheep producers face an immediate crisis because of the abrupt loss of key experienced employees who cannot be replaced quickly.
The seasonal production cycle has lambing and shearing just around the corner. New herders are unable to replace the loss of seasoned, ranch familiar and area specific herders. The financial losses that will accrue by replacing experienced men with new ones are very real since it takes up to two years to properly train a herder.
The industry is at a critical juncture and is asking for immediate producer assistance. Contact your senators and ask them to support a multi-state effort to effect this decision. Sen. Feinstein's (Calif.) office has agreed to coordinate a multi-state effort.