Republicans Push Massive Foreign Worker Visa Expansion In DHS Spending Bill

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

A Republican-controlled House committee moved to significantly expand foreign worker programs in a markup of the 2019 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill on Wednesday.

The House Appropriations Committee, chaired by GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, tacked on two amendments that would raise annual caps on guest worker visas in agricultural and seasonal jobs. It also passed an amendment from Republican Kevin Yoder of Kansas that would reduce the backlog of employment-based green cards for high-skill workers from India and China.

The guest worker amendments pertain to two visa programs, the H-2A and the H-2B visa, that allow U.S. companies to bring in thousands of foreign laborers each year if they are unable to find American workers to fill the jobs. Business groups have long advocated for expanding both programs, arguing that there are not enough Americans willing or able to meet their labor needs.

In Wednesday’s markup session, the committee passed an amendment offered by GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington that would open the H-2A visa to more categories of agricultural jobs. The program, which has no annual cap, currently excludes some categories of agriculture jobs such as dairy farm workers.

A separate amendment passed in committee would roughly triple the number of H-2B visas, a program for seasonal guest workers in non-agricultural industries such as landscaping, forestry, seafood processing, and tourism. Co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, the proposal would exempt H-2B recipients from the previous two fiscal years from being counted against the current year’s cap.

The H-2B cap is set by statute at 66,000 per year, a number that business lobbies say is too low to meet their seasonal hiring needs. This year, tourism associations and seafood processors in coastal states were particularly vociferous in their complaints about the H-2B limit.

A similar proposal to the committee’s H-2B amendment was included in the GOP’s “compromise” immigration reform bill in June. The bill was soundly defeated in a floor vote, in part because of objections from House conservatives over the three-fold expansion of guest worker visas. (RELATED: GOP’s Compromise Immigration Package Would Triple Seasonal Guest Worker Visas)

Immigration hawks have long been skeptical of the need for additional guest workers, and some have called for the elimination of the H-2 programs entirely. Groups such as NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which have seen many of their ideas championed by President Donald Trump, argue the H-2B program displaces native-born workers and drives down wages for young and low-skilled employees.

A third amendment passed by the appropriations committee comes from GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, an immigration moderate who has long sought to increase worker visa levels. His proposal would lift the per-country cap on employment-based green cards, which is currently set at 7 percent of the annual limit of roughly 120,000.

Yoder’s amendment would clear the years-long backlog of visa applicants from China and India, the two nations that account for the majority of pending employment-based green cards. The proposal is popular in Congress — it has 325 co-sponsors, including nearly every Democrat and more than 100 Republicans, reports McClatchy DC.

The committee bill still has several hurdles to jump before it reaches Trump’s desk. It must pass in a House floor vote, and then House leadership must reconcile the differences with the Senate version.

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