GOP’s Compromise Immigration Package Would Triple Seasonal Guest Worker Visas

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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A GOP immigration reform bill set for a vote on Wednesday would triple the annual cap on seasonal guest worker visas, one of several business-friendly provisions intended to make the compromise package more palatable to moderate Republicans.

The so-called “compromise bill” from the House GOP caucus is the result of weeks of deliberations between conservatives, moderates and party leadership. It was scheduled for a vote Friday, but Speaker of the House Paul Ryan tabled the bill after complaints from the House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives.

In an effort to give both immigration restrictionists and pro-business lawmakers something to take home, Rep. Bob Goodlatte filed a 116-page amendment late Monday night that trades mandatory e-Verify for a massive expansion of foreign guest worker visas.

One guest worker provision concerns the H-2B visa program, which allows U.S. companies to bring in foreign workers for seasonal jobs in industries such as landscaping, forestry, seafood processing, and tourism. The 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.

Under current law, the annual cap on H-2B visas is set at 66,000, with an option given to the secretary of homeland security to unilaterally raise the cap to roughly 120,000. The latest version of the GOP bill — negotiated primarily by Reps. Goodlatte, Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Michael McCaul of Texas and Jeff Denham of California — changes this policy by reinstating the returning worker exemption.

Goodlatte’s amendment would allow any H-2B worker who came in either of the last two fiscal years not to be counted against the current year’s cap, potentially tripling the annual limit. The provision is likely to be cheered by industry groups, who complained that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s recent H-2B expansion was too little and too late to address supposed seasonal labor shortages. (RELATED: DHS Authorizes 15,000 Extra Guest Worker Visas)

The Goodlatte proposal also creates an entirely new agricultural guest worker program to replace the current H-2A visa. It would allow U.S. farmers and food processors to hire up to 450,000 foreign workers over three years under a new visa known as the H-2C, assuming the businesses couldn’t find American workers to do those jobs. Additionally, the H-2C provision includes an “automatic escalator” to increase visas for non-meat and poultry processing jobs if the annual cap is ever reached, according to a fact sheet from Goodlatte’s office.

In exchange for the guest worker expansion, Goodlatte’s amendment tacks on the mandatory use of e-Verify, an online system that allows employers to confirm the work eligibility of potential employees. The proposal gives large companies — those with 10,000 or more employees — six months to implement E-Verify, reports Politico.

Smaller firms and agricultural companies would have between one and two years to phase in the program, depending on the number of people they employ.

Immigration hawks have long sought mandatory E-Verify in any immigration reform bill, especially those that would give amnesty to so-called “Dreamers” — illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Goodlatte’s inclusion of E-Verify is aimed at House conservatives concerned about the compromise bill’s granting of legal status and work permits to roughly 1.8 million Dreamers, nearly three times more than the number of people who received protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

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