Immigration Hard-Liners Blast Trump Guest Worker Expansion

Critics rip administration’s decision to allow 15,000 more H-2B visa workers as a 'betrayal'

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 17 Jul 2017 at 8:29 PM

Immigration hard-liners on Monday blasted Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s decision to admit 15,000 additional low-skill guest workers under authority granted by Congress earlier this year.

The decision is a win for the business lobby, which had argued that the increase was needed to fill a labor shortage in industries such as landscaping and tourism. But organizations favoring tighter restriction on immigration argued the companies should be turning to Americans and legal permanent residents.

“It’s a complete sellout of the people who voted for President [Donald] Trump,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “One of his core promises was that he was going to protect the most vulnerable Americans.”

The H-2B visa program allows foreigners to work temporarily in America in low-skilled, non-agricultural occupations. The one-year visas can be extended for up to three years; visa holders then must return home for at least three months before coming back to the United States.

The law caps the number of visas each year at 66,000, although Congress in previous years had exempted returning workers from the cap. The spending bill passed in May eliminated the requirement that exempt workers must previously have worked under the visa. The Department of Homeland Security received authorization to grant additional visas equal to the year with the highest number of returning workers.

For the first time, the government is adding a requirement that employers demonstrate they would suffer irreparable harm if they cannot hire the guest workers.

"It's not just the number, it's a lot of the qualifications and a lot that goes through to ensure that we are hiring and bringing in the people" that are needed, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute released a study Monday indicating there is little evidence in wage data to support the contention of a labor shortage. All but one of the 10 most popular H-2B job categories saw wage growth that was slower than the overall growth from 2004 to 2016. In some cases, wages actually declined.

"Expanding the H-2B program without reforming it to improve protections and increase wages for migrant workers will essentially allow unscrupulous employers to carve out an even larger rights-free zone in the low-wage labor market," study author Daniel Costa said in a prepared statement.

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, said in a statement that Kelly's decision threatens to disincentivize companies from working harder to recruit Americans.

"Congress gave Kelly the authority to put around 70,000 more of those jobs out of the reach of Americans; at least Kelly limited the damage to keeping just 15,000 more Americans out of the labor market," he stated. "Nonetheless, this is yet another example of the administration and Congress failing to keep the Trump campaign promise of putting American workers first."

Kelly's decision comes on the heels of a study by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies that shows the average hourly pay of H-2B visa holders last year was $12.31. Those higher-than-minimum-wage jobs should go to Americans, Beck argued.

H-2B Visas
Visas in recent years have exceeded cap
Fiscal yearH-2B Visas
2006122.5K
2007129.6K
200894.3K
200944.9K
201047.4K
201150.8K
201250K
201357.6K
201468.1K
201569.7K
201684.6K
Source: State Department

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said 15,000 new workers is a big increase for the rest of the fiscal year. Under ordinary rules, the 66,000-visa limit is divided, with half awarded in the first half of the year and half in the second.

"That's a very substantial increase. It's a 45 percent increase," she said. "This is a program that's already controversial. According to our research, these are workers that for the most part don't have any skills or education. And there are hundreds of thousands of American workers who can do those jobs."

In addition to the impact on the labor market, Vaughan said, it also is a source of illegal immigration. She pointed to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security that 33,000 people who entered through guest worker visas of various types remained in the country illegally after those visas expired.

Vaughan said it also is unclear how the government will determine if businesses will be irreparably harmed.

"We don't know to what extent these are needed workers, as opposed to wanted workers," she said.

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