Congress Plots to Sneak Legal Immigration Hike into Spending Bill

Policy hawks concerned lawmakers will use must-pass omnibus to expand guest-worker programs

When Congress finally gets around to passing a giant spending bill to keep the government in business for 2018, it likely will include a number of business-friendly changes to laws regulating foreign workers, according to immigration experts.

Congress last week passed a temporary funding extension that raised the debt ceiling and provided aid to Texans hurt by Hurricane Harvey. That means that in December, Congress will have to approve a permanent spending bill for fiscal year 2018.

“We’re heading down the path of facing a huge omnibus bill in December, when no one will pay attention because it’s the holidays,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.

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That is when mischief can occur, despite President Donald Trump’s repeated promises to put the interests of American workers first, warn critics of the nation’s guest-worker programs.

Possible provisions in the spending bill include:

  • A proposal by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) to allow dairy workers to participate in the H-2A agriculture guest worker program. While an unlimited number of qualifying agriculture workers from abroad can obtain H-2A visas, dairy workers are not eligible under current rules. That means dairy farmers must compete for one of a limited number of H-2B visas available to low-skilled non-farm occupations such as landscaping and restaurant workers.
  • A proposal by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) to give seafood processors more flexibility in using H-2B visas.
  • A proposal to change the way the “prevailing wage” is calculated as part of the H-2B program. Under current law, employees must pay guest workers the “prevailing wage,” defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Language in the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security and other domestic agencies would require the homeland security secretary to “accept private wage surveys, even in instances where Occupational Employment Statistics survey data are available,” unless the agency determines those surveys are not methodologically sound.

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Chmielenski said allowing industries to submit private wage surveys rather than government-produced data almost certainly would result in lower wages, undercutting American workers.

In addition to those provisions, some analysts said there could be a renewed push to increase the number of H-2B visas. Lawmakers accomplished this for the current fiscal year by inserting language into a $1.1 trillion spending bill passed in May. It gave the Department of Homeland Security authority to raise the 66,000-visa cap. The agency in July allowed 15,000 additional foreign workers for businesses that could demonstrate they would suffer “permanent, severe financial loss” if the government did not award the visas.

“These are the types of things Congress has done for years, long before Trump … We call it legislating on appropriations. It’s Washington at its worst.”

“It’s just yet another example of the Congress prioritizing their business interests and special interests over the American workforce,” said Rob Law, director of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “These are the types of things Congress has done for years, long before Trump … We call it legislating on appropriations. It’s Washington at its worst.”

The White House last week announced support for the spending bill, citing provisions on border security and enforcement of illegal immigration. Chmielenski said it is consistent with an administration that generally has taken a hands-off approach to the details of legislation.

“We’ve found, especially, the White House hasn’t been too involved with the nitty-gritty of the policies,” he said.

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Still, some observers said lawmakers of the president’s own party might be expected to try to enact his agenda rather than tinkering with guest-worker programs in ways that hurt the prospects of American workers.

“They keep doing it, and it seems like they’re getting more aggressive about it … I was surprised about it,” said Ian Smith, investigative associate for FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute.

Smith said tucking special provisions inside must-pass spending bills is a time-tested way to enact policies that would face stiff opposition if submitted on their own merits.

“That’s why this stuff gets through, because it is complicated,” he said.

(photo credit, article image: Peter Dutton, Flickr)

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