U.S. adds visas for sea­sonal work­ers

In­crease of 15,000 con­trasts with Trump’s ‘Hire Amer­i­can’ rhetoric

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY 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, a seem­ing about-face from Pres­i­dent Trump’s “Hire Amer­i­can” rhetoric.

The de­ci­sion fol­lows heavy lob­by­ing from fish­ery, hos­pi­tal­ity and other in­dus­tries that rely on tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers.

The in­crease in visas con­trasted sharply with Trump’s past pledges to limit im­mi­gra­tion and risked net­tling some of the pres­i­dent’s clos­est al­lies in Congress who have also called for re­duc­ing the num­bers of for­eign work­ers com­ing to the United States.

The in­crease an­nounced on Mon­day 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.

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

Busi­nesses can be­gin ap­ply­ing for the visas this week but must first at­test that their firms would suf­fer per­ma­nent “ir­repara­ble harm” without im­port­ing for­eign work­ers. They will be re­quired to re­tain doc­u­ments show­ing that

without the work­ers, they would not oth­er­wise be able to meet their con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions. Or em­ploy­ers must pro­vide other ev­i­dence of se­vere fi­nan­cial loss, the of­fi­cials said.

A Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said the in­crease “ab­so­lutely does” fit in with Trump’s cam­paign prom­ises. “We’re talk­ing about Amer­i­can busi­nesses that are at risk of suf­fer­ing ir­repara­ble harm if they don’t get ad­di­tional H-2B work­ers,” he said. “This does help with Amer­i­can busi­nesses con­tin­u­ing to pros­per.”

An­other of­fi­cial said the govern­ment made the de­ci­sion af­ter “con­sid­er­ing the in­ter­est of U.S. work­ers.” The of­fi­cials briefed re­porters in ad­vance about the new pol­icy on the con­di­tion that they not be named.

Busi­nesses’ pe­ti­tions will be re­viewed on a first-come, first­served ba­sis and will be granted without re­gard to in­dus­try type, ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion or firm size, the of­fi­cials said. Given that the sum­mer is half over and that nor­mal pro­cess­ing time takes 30 to 60 days, the of­fi­cials rec­om­mended that busi­nesses pay the $1,225 fee for ex­pe­dited pro­cess­ing within 15 days.

The in­crease may come too late for some Vir­ginia seafood pro­cess­ing plants that pick crab, shuck oys­ters and pack bait, said Mike Hutt, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vir­ginia Marine Prod­ucts Board, which rep­re­sents the state’s seafood in­dus­try. “This could be the light at the end of the tun­nel. But here we are in July, and some of these com­pa­nies still don’t have work­ers,” Hutt said.

The lack of work­ers has led to at least one com­pany shut­ting down an assem­bly line this sum­mer, he said, hurt­ing not just the pro­cess­ing plant but also work­ers in­volved in haul­ing, pack­ag­ing and re­frig­er­at­ing the seafood.

Congress paved the way to in­creas­ing the num­ber of H-2B work­ers in May when it passed an om­nibus bud­get to avert a govern­ment shut­down. Part of the deal in­cluded giv­ing the sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity the author­ity to in­crease the num­ber of sea­sonal for­eign work­ers.

Cur­rent law lim­its the num­ber of such visas is­sued to 66,000 a 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 H-2B pro­gram pre­vi­ously drew strong bi­par­ti­san sup­port be­cause law­mak­ers have a vested in­ter­est in sup­port­ing their home­s­tate in­dus­tries — whether it’s crab-pick­ing in Mary­land, ski re­sorts in Colorado or log­ging in Wash­ing­ton.

But some sen­a­tors have crit­i­cized 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.

“This is yet an­other ex­am­ple of the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress fail­ing to keep the Trump cam­paign prom­ise of putting Amer­i­can work­ers first,” said Roy Beck, pres­i­dent of Num­ber­sUSA, which lob­bies to lower im­mi­gra­tion lev­els.

Jes­sica Vaughan, di­rec­tor of pol­icy stud­ies at the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, said that in­stead of “prop­ping up un­sus­tain­able busi­nesses by al­low­ing them to be­come so de­pen­dent on for­eign work­ers,” the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should be pro­vid­ing in­cen­tives for such em­ploy­ers to hire the “hun­dreds of thou­sands” of teenagers, se­niors and oth­ers look­ing for en­try-level work.

“Is it re­ally that no one will do the work?” Vaughan said. “Or is it just eas­ier for them to use the body shops that find the work­ers?”

While some com­pa­nies use the H-2B pro­gram to hire life­guards, car­ni­val work­ers and maids, oth­ers use it to im­port en­gi­neers, tax pre­par­ers and oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists — “jobs that clearly are not un­skilled and not so ex­otic that no Amer­i­cans can be found to fill them,” Vaughan and her col­leagues wrote in an anal­y­sis of H-2B data re­leased last week.

Some of Trump’s clos­est al­lies on im­mi­gra­tion on Capi­tol Hill have also called for cuts to the H-2B pro­gram, cit­ing the pres­i­dent’s cam­paign as ev­i­dence that Amer­i­can work­ers are op­posed to in­creases in tem­po­rary, lowskilled work­ers from abroad.

In May, Sen. Tom Cot­ton (R-Ark.) gave a blis­ter­ing speech on the Se­nate floor op­pos­ing a mea­sure in the om­nibus spend­ing bill that au­tho­rized the dou­bling of H-2B visas that could be is­sued dur­ing the re­main­der of fis­cal 2017.

“A lot of the ar­gu­ments for this kind of pro­gram boil down to this: No Amer­i­can worker will do that job. That is a lie. It is a lie. There is no job that Amer­i­cans will not do,” Cot­ton said. “If the wage is de­cent and the em­ployer obeys the law, Amer­i­cans will do the job. And if it’s not, they should pay higher wages. To say any­thing else is an in­sult to the work ethic of the Amer­i­can peo­ple who make this coun­try run.”

Cot­ton and Sen. David Per­due (R-Ga.) are work­ing on an im­mi­gra­tion bill that would, over the com­ing decade, slash by half the cur­rent 1 mil­lion for­eign­ers each year who re­ceive green cards al­low­ing them to live per­ma­nently in the United States. The sen­a­tors met twice with Trump on the bill, and Cot­ton said in a re­cent in­ter­view that the pres­i­dent sup­ported their ef­forts but also asked them to ad­dress tem­po­rary work­ers. The sen­a­tors are work­ing closely with the White House on a new ver­sion of the leg­is­la­tion that could be un­veiled by the end of sum­mer.

Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley (RIowa), chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (Calif.), the rank­ing Demo­crat on the com­mit­tee, be­seeched their con­gres­sional col­leagues in May to re­move the H-2B 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.”

Trump in Fe­bru­ary had called on Congress to pur­sue a “mer­it­based” im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem that would fa­vor high-skilled work­ers and close off av­enues to low­er­skilled im­mi­grants and ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers of per­ma­nent U.S. res­i­dents.

But Trump him­self has used H-2B visas to hire tem­po­rary work­ers at his golf re­sorts in Palm Beach, Fla., 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.”

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Lo­cals and mi­grants with H-2B visas shuck oys­ters at a Har­ris’s Seafood Co. plant in Gra­sonville, Md., in Novem­ber 2015.

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