Pro-labor voters who support President Donald Trump were horrified by the giant increase in H-2B guest-worker visas that was slipped into the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill and signed into law by the chief executive Friday.
Although expanding the program was spearheaded by GOP leaders in Congress (Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has supported such a move), the development is no doubt a welcome one for Establishment Republicans and general “business first” types within the executive branch.
This is the second such H-2B increase since Trump took office, and momentum appears be building for a similar handout to users of the other farmworker-specific guest-worker program, the H-2A. Although uncapped, the H-2A program can be expanded by making it easier and cheaper to use, for instance, by cutting U.S. worker protections.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has routinely pressed the president for such an expansion, and White House senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who despite his ties to the president shares few of his views, has met with Mexican officials to discuss the topic.
The Mexican government has lobbied for H-2A expansion for years and will certainly be raising the issue with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirsten Nielsen when they meet in Mexico City this week.
With 200,000 slots being taken up this year, the H-2As still double the size of the H-2B. And unlike the H-2B, the H-2A program is almost completely dominated by Mexican workers. The elite in Mexico love this.
As academics claim, programs similar to the H-2A were historically used as a kind of political safety valve by the Mexican government, with the majority of slots being directed toward people from the country’s less stable regions, thereby taking pressure off the corrupt elite.
The general rationale still exists. Speaking about legal and illegal immigration in general, a former Vincente Fox adviser says that ensuring a steady flow of poor, unskilled Mexicans out of the country keeps the elite from making much-needed domestic reforms.
Then, of course, there are the remittances. As Robert Stout, an American journalist living in Mexico, writes, the $25 billion in U.S.-based remittances Mexico receives annually (currently it’s the number one GDP contributor), “enable the government to curtail expenditures for social and education programs,” while those who leave “cost the government nothing [and] use none of the country’s public assets.”
It’s not surprising then that the Mexican government funds D.C. think tanks, which analyze remittance trends and fights our own pro-enforcement immigration reforms in the U.S. court system and the mainstream media.
But it’s big business in America that loves the program the most. Instead of paying “uppity” U.S. workers the wages needed to get them into the fields or investing in labor-saving technologies, they get to import workers from a country where the average pay is a mere one-tenth of what it is here.
In 2008, as a handout to agribusiness, President George W. Bush dismantled a series of protections for U.S. and H-2A farm workers, including protections (however weak they were already) against U.S. worker displacement and wage depression, and requirements like sanitary housing for faraway farms.
Although later reinstalled by President Barack Obama (the one positive immigration move he made in the White House), these parts of the program have been continuously attacked by agribusiness and lobbyists like the American Farm Bureau Federation. Whether Kushner or Nielsen return us to the Bush days, we shall see.
It would be political suicide if the president allows for an expansion of the H-2A program to go through.
Of course, agribusiness has no right to attack anything. With a workforce estimated to be 60 percent illegal alien (H-2As make up about 10 percent), perhaps no other industry has been allowed to flout our immigration and labor laws so widely and openly.
Counting Bracero and similar programs, big agribusiness has been receiving immigration subsidies for nearly a century with all the diffuse costs and negative externalities being paid for by the American people.
It would be political suicide if the president allows for an expansion of the H-2A program to go through. He’ll be attacked from the Right for diverging from his “buy American, hire American” executive order, and he’ll be attacked from the Left for weakening protections for foreign workers. Both would be correct.
By letting Mexico and big business shape labor policy for their own ends, Trump will look hypocritical or even worse, incompetent.
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo is a Republican from Colorado.
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