Politics

GOP Budget Doubles Controversial Guest Worker Program

Provision inserted in must-pass spending package lifts cap on low-skill H-2B visas

The compromise $1.1 trillion spending bill to keep the federal government open through September includes a back-door expansion of a program that allows companies to bring in foreigners to work low-skill jobs.

By law, the total number of H-2B visas that can be issued in any year is 66,000. But the spending bill that the House will vote on Wednesday includes a provision that could more than double that for the rest of the fiscal year.

“You could potentially bring in another 66,000 workers just in the next four months.”

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“You could potentially bring in another 66,000 workers just in the next four months,” said Rob Law, director of government relations for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The visas are designed to help businesses fill temporary, seasonal non-agricultural jobs in industries such as landscaping and tourism.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking minority member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) blasted the parliamentary chicanery. They argued that bypassing the cap through the appropriations process improperly cedes immigration policy to the executive branch.

“We understand the needs of employers who rely on seasonal H-2B workers if the American workforce can’t meet the demand, but we are also aware of the potential side effects of flooding the labor force with more temporary foreign workers, including depressed wages for all workers in seasonal jobs,” they said in a joint statement. “The bottom line is that this issue deserves more thoughtful consideration. Appropriators should remove this provision and give the Judiciary Committee time to properly consider and debate this change to our nation’s immigration laws.”

Law agreed.

“Exemptions to immigration caps should not be snuck into must-pass appropriations bills,” he said.

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[lz_table title=”H-2B Visas” source=”State Department”]Visas in recent years have exceeded cap
|Fiscal year,H-2B Visas
2006,122.5K
2007,129.6K
2008,94.3K
2009,44.9K
2010,47.4K
2011,50.8K
2012,50K
2013,57.6K
2014,68.1K
2015,69.7K
2016,84.6K
[/lz_table]

This is not the first time Congress has used the appropriations process to play with the cap on temporary workers. A couple of years ago, Republican leaders slipped a provision in a spending bill that allowed anyone who had worked in America on an H-2B visa in 2013, 2014 or 2015 to return without counting against the cap. Congress passed such returning-worker provisions in the first decade of the 21st century as well.

The spending bill up for a vote this week dispenses with the requirement that exempt visa holders have been H-2B workers in the past, according to an analysis by NumbersUSA. Instead, it states that businesses can bring in a number equal to the year with the highest number of returning visa workers.

Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for NumbersUSA, said that would appear to allow as many as 69,320 additional workers from now until the end of September. That was the number of returning H-2B workers in fiscal year 2007.

John Miano, a lawyer and fellow at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said provisions allowing for more low-skill guest workers often are confusingly worded.

“They deliberately play games like this so you can’t tell how many this is,” he said.

The law governing H-2B visas requires companies to make a good-faith effort to hire Americans first and to pay the prevailing wage in its industry. But Chmielenski said the prevailing wage is based on the current going rate, not what it would be without foreign workers driving down wages. And he questioned how aggressively businesses recruit American workers before turning abroad.

“You don’t have to throw everything at it,” he said.

[lz_table title=”Wages in H-2B Jobs” source=”Economic Policy Institute”]Change in wages of all U.S. workers in most common H-2B jobs
|Occupation,Change 2004-14
Landscaping,-3.4%
Forest/conservation,+.3%
Amusement & rec.,-1.3%
Maids/housekeepers,+.2%
Meat & fish cutters,-3.3%
Construction laborers,-1%
|
All U.S. jobs,+1.8%
[/lz_table]

Miano noted that the spending bill allows the federal government, when determining the prevailing wage, to accept private wage surveys, even in instances where occupational employment statistics survey data are available, unless the secretary of labor determines the methodology and data are flawed.

Miano said the effect of that will allow employers to pay lower wages.

Chmielenski pointed to a study last year by the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute indicating that there is no evidence of a shortage of low-wage workers. The study determined that companies save multiple dollars per hour by hiring lower-paid visa workers. Of the 15 occupations where H-2B workers are most common, wages were either stagnant to declining, according to the study. And the unemployment rates in each of the occupations increased between 2006 and 2014.

Chmielenski said companies undoubtedly would have to offer higher pay to draw Americans to temporary positions that often are physically demanding.

[lz_related_box id=”789684″]

“They don’t want to pay them $15 to $20 an hour,” he said. “They want to pay them $8 or $9 an hour.”

The legislation does offer visa opponents one hope. Rather than automatically increase the number beyond 66,000, it gives discretion to the secretary of homeland security — in consultation with the Labor Department — to approve or deny requests by businesses. Chmielenski noted that President Donald Trump campaigned on reforming temporary worker visas and said his organization would press the administration to take a hard line.

“If we can’t get this stripped out of the underlying bill, I assume that will be our next line of action,” he said. “It would really be Trump turning his back on all those workers in the states that Trump won.”

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