Agency OKs adding sea­sonal visas

Home­land Se­cu­rity says 15,000 work­ers a one-time waiver

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - TRACY JAN

The De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity on Mon­day an­nounced a one-time in­crease of 15,000 visas for low-wage, sea­sonal work­ers for the re­main­der of this fis­cal year af­ter heavy lob­by­ing from the fish­eries, hos­pi­tal­ity and other in­dus­tries that rely on tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers.

The in­crease rep­re­sents a 45 per­cent bump from the num­ber of H-2B visas nor­mally is­sued for the sec­ond half of the fis­cal year, said se­nior Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in a call with re­porters Mon­day.

The visas are for work­ers tak­ing sea­sonal jobs in the seafood, tourism and other in­dus­tries — but not farm la­bor­ers.

Busi­nesses must first at­test that their firms would suf­fer per­ma­nent “ir­repara­ble harm” without im­port­ing for­eign work­ers and will be re­quired to re­tain doc­u­ments prov­ing that they would not oth­er­wise be able to meet their con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions, the of­fi­cials said.

The of­fi­cials said the govern­ment made the de­ci­sion af­ter “con­sid­er­ing the in­ter­est of U.S. work­ers” and has cre­ated a tip line for re­ports of worker ex­ploita­tion and abuse.

“[Sec­re­tary John Kelly] first and fore­most is com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing U.S. work­ers and strength­en­ing the in­tegrity of our im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem,” one of the Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said.

Congress paved the way to in­creas­ing the num­ber of H-2B work­ers in May when it passed an om­nibus bud­get to avoid a govern­ment shut­down. Part of the deal in­cluded giv­ing the sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity the author­ity to in­crease the num­ber of for­eign work­ers, af­ter con­sult­ing with the sec­re­tary of la­bor, “upon de­ter­mi­na­tion that the needs of Amer­i­can busi­nesses can­not be sat­is­fied in fis­cal year 2017 with United States work­ers who are will­ing, qual­i­fied, and able to per­form tem­po­rary nona­gri­cul­tural la­bor.” Farm work­ers en­ter the U.S. un­der a dif­fer­ent visa, known as the H-2A.

Cur­rent law lim­its the num­ber of such visas is­sued to 66,000 a year — split be­tween two halves of the year. The cap has al­ready been reached this year. Visas for more than 120,000 po­si­tions have been re­quested so far in fis­cal 2017, ac­cord­ing to De­part­ment of La­bor sta­tis­tics. The seafood in­dus­try, which be­gan its hir­ing sea­son in April, com­petes with other in­dus­tries, such as land­scap­ing and tourism, that rely heav­ily on tem­po­rary sum­mer work­ers.

The H-2B pro­gram has drawn strong bi­par­ti­san sup­port in the past be­cause law­mak­ers have a vested in­ter­est in sup­port­ing their states’ most crit­i­cal in­dus­tries — whether it’s crab-pick­ing in Mary­land, ski re­sorts in Colorado or log­ging in Wash­ing­ton. But some sen­a­tors are crit­i­ciz­ing their col­leagues’ ef­forts to by­pass pub­lic de­bate about chang­ing im­mi­gra­tion law.

Other crit­ics dis­pute that there re­ally is a la­bor short­age in the in­dus­tries that rely most on the sea­sonal guest worker visas, ac­cus­ing the in­dus­tries of ex­ploit­ing for­eign work­ers at the ex­pense of Amer­i­can jobs.

Sen. Charles Grass­ley, R-Iowa, chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif., the rank­ing Demo­crat on the com­mit­tee, in May had be­seeched their con­gres­sional col­leagues to re­move the pro­vi­sion and give the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee time to con­sider any changes to im­mi­gra­tion laws.

“This move by lead­er­ship and ap­pro­pri­a­tors cedes por­tions of this author­ity to the ex­ec­u­tive branch without a pub­lic de­bate,” Grass­ley and Fe­in­stein said. “We un­der­stand the needs of em­ploy­ers who rely on sea­sonal H-2B work­ers if the Amer­i­can work­force can’t meet the de­mand, but we are also aware of the po­ten­tial side ef­fects of flood­ing the la­bor force with more tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers, in­clud­ing de­pressed wages for all work­ers in sea­sonal jobs.”

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump him­self has used the visas to hire tem­po­rary work­ers at his golf re­sorts in Palm Beach and Jupiter, Fla.

“I’ve hired in Florida dur­ing the prime sea­son — you could not get help,” Trump said dur­ing a 2015 pri­mary de­bate. “Ev­ery­body agrees with me on that. They were part-time jobs. You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, be­cause you couldn’t get help in those hot, hot sec­tions of Florida.”

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