The must-pass spending bill under consideration in Congress includes the expansion of a seasonal guest worker program, giving Republican lawmakers a win on behalf of influential business groups.
Buried deep in the omnibus proposal is a provision that could more than double the annual cap of H-2B visas, a program that allows U.S. companies to bring in foreign workers for work in seasonally dependent industries such as landscaping, forestry, seafood processing, and tourism.
H-2B visas are limited by statute to 66,000 per year. Business groups regularly complain the limit is too low to make up for a supposed shortage of available U.S. workers, forcing them to scale back operations or raise wages to attract applicants.
At the urging of GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a longtime proponent of increasing guest worker visas, lawmakers inserted language into the omnibus bill that gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to unilaterally raise the annual cap.
The provision allows the homeland security secretary, after confirming shortages with labor officials, to increase the total number of H-2B visas by “the highest number” of returning guest workers who were exempt from the annual cap in any previous fiscal year. In plain terms, the DHS secretary could approximately double the number of H-2B visas issued in 2018, from 66,000 to roughly 120,000.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pushed for a similar rule in the 2017 spending bill, following pressure from business groups who were angry that lawmakers had failed to reauthorize the returning worker exemption. Then-DHS Secretary John Kelly ultimately raised the H-2B cap by 15,000 additional visas, far fewer than sought by business groups and Republican allies in Congress.
The H-2B program has come under closer scrutiny under President Donald Trump, who has taken a more skeptical view of guest worker programs than typical Republican administrations. Immigration restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which have seen many of their ideas championed by the president, argue the H-2B program displaces native born workers and drives down wages for young and low-skilled employees.
That position is at odds with business groups that are heavily influential with Republican lawmakers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council. They say the H-2B program is needed to address domestic labor shortages and have pressured GOP lawmakers to authorize more visas or make certain industries exempt from the annual cap.
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Boosting the number of H-2B visas has been a bipartisan priority in negotiations over the 2018 omnibus bill. In addition to Tillis, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, one of the top H-2B recipient states, pushed to include the same DHS authorization granted in the 2017 bill in this year’s version.
The House plans to vote on the bill on Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers have until the end of Friday to pass a bill and avert a government shutdown.
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