Law­mak­ers reach deal to dou­ble guest work­ers

H-2B visas help small busi­nesses

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

A key group of law­mak­ers has struck a deal to dou­ble the num­ber of visas doled out to tem­po­rary sea­sonal guest work­ers each year, sug­gest­ing a break­through on an im­mi­gra­tion is­sue that has be­dev­iled Congress for years.

The num­ber of visas al­lowed would rise from 66,000 to 132,000 an­nu­ally. The trade-off is that busi­nesses hop­ing to use the H-2B visa pro­gram will have to sub­mit to strict checks on their work­forces, mak­ing sure any­one hired since 2012, and those they hire go­ing for­ward, are in the coun­try legally, ac­cord­ing to a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing seen by The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Staffers for Re­pub­li­can Sens. Thom Til­lis of North Carolina, Chuck Grass­ley of Iowa and Mike Rounds of South Dakota, as well as Rep. Andy Har­ris of Mary­land, agreed to the terms with the H-2B Work­force Coali­tion and the Sea­sonal Em­ploy­ment Al­liance.

“Sen. Til­lis has been work­ing with his col­leagues on ways to en­sure Amer­ica’s small busi­nesses have the tem­po­rary, le­gal work­ers they need to sus­tain their busi­ness while also mak­ing sure there are in­tegrity and ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures in place to pro­tect Amer­i­can work­ers and pro­mote a le­gal work­force,” Til­lis spokesman Daniel Keylin said. “There is broad bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus in sup­port of sea­sonal small busi­nesses and the Amer­i­can work­ers they em­ploy, and progress is be­ing made on a fair com­pro­mise.”

A Se­nate aide said Re­pub­li­can lead­ers are aware of the ne­go­ti­a­tions and that the law­mak­ers hope to add their plan to the must-pass spend­ing bill loom­ing next week.

That’s a fast time­line, but the spend­ing bills have been the nexus for bat­tling over the size of the H-2B pro­gram for the past cou­ple of years.

Chris Ch­mie­len­ski, deputy di­rec­tor at Num­ber­sUSA, which wants stricter lim­its on for­eign work­ers, said the deal be­tween Re­pub­li­cans and the in­dus­try was un­usual and wor­ri­some.

“I don’t ever re­call see­ing a for­mal agree­ment be­tween con­gres­sional staff and em­ploy­ers to draft leg­is­la­tion to in­crease em­ploy­ers’ ac­cess to cheap, for­eign la­bor,” he said. “Don­ald Trump won the White House by run­ning on a proAmer­i­can-worker im­mi­gra­tion mes­sage, but his party lost con­trol of the House dur­ing the midterms by aban­don­ing that mes­sage. This agree­ment is ev­i­dence that Re­pub­li­cans haven’t learned from their re­cent elec­tion losses.”

While most of the heat in the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate has been over those in the coun­try il­le­gally, some in­dus­tries say they are starv­ing for work­ers and must have ac­cess to for­eign­ers.

That is par­tic­u­larly true for sea­sonal nona­gri­cul­ture work­ers, which is what H-2B visas are ded­i­cated to. Heavy users in­clude re­sort-based busi­nesses, land­scap­ers and seafood pro­cess­ing plants.

The 66,000 an­nual visas are di­vided, with half doled out for the win­ter sea­son and half for the sum­mer.

Un­der terms of the deal struck by the law­mak­ers and the in­dus­try, the in­crease in visas would be ef­fec­tive retroac­tive to Oct. 1.

Busi­nesses would have a year to cer­tify that they are ver­i­fy­ing their hires through E-Ver­ify, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s cur­rently vol­un­tary sys­tem for check­ing work­ers’ iden­ti­ties.

The busi­nesses would then have ad­di­tional years to go back and check the rest of their work­ers who were hired June 15, 2012, or later. That date cor­re­sponds with the be­gin­ning of Pres­i­dent Obama’s De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals de­por­ta­tion amnesty pro­gram for il­le­gal im­mi­grant “Dream­ers.”

For any il­le­gal im­mi­grants sniffed out dur­ing the back-ver­i­fi­ca­tion process, the busi­nesses who hired them would be al­lowed to hire a new H-2B worker who wouldn’t count against the caps.

Busi­nesses help­ing ar­eas struck by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters would be al­lowed to bring in work­ers and not count them against the cap un­der the deal, which would be retroac­tive to Oct. 1.

The num­ber of visas is­sued un­der the H-2B pro­gram has fluc­tu­ated wildly over the past 15 years, peak­ing at nearly 130,000 in 2007 and dip­ping to fewer than 45,000 just two years later, then ris­ing back to 83,000 to 85,000 in 2016 and 2017.

Those past two years were each above the 66,000 cap after fierce fight­ing earned a tem­po­rary re­prieve on Capi­tol Hill.

In 2017, for ex­am­ple, H-2B back­ers pushed for a ma­jor in­crease each time, but the most they were able to win was a clunky so­lu­tion, at­tached to the an­nual spend­ing bills, that left it up to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­cide how many more visas to of­fer.

Then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly al­lowed a 15,000-visa hike but com­plained that Congress should be the one set­ting that num­ber.

Even after that chid­ing, Congress failed to strike a deal for 2018, again leav­ing it to the Home­land Se­cu­rity sec­re­tary — now Kirst­jen Nielsen — to set­tle on an in­crease. Ms. Nielsen again of­fered just 15,000 new visas.

The con­gres­sional deal tak­ing shape ap­pears to be an ef­fort to head off an­other em­bar­rass­ing punt.

Hav­ing Mr. Grass­ley on board this time could be cru­cial.

The Iowa Re­pub­li­can is chair­man of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and was a vo­cal critic of Congress’ de­ci­sion to al­low for the boost in visas in the past two years. In let­ters to Home­land Se­cu­rity, he said large cor­po­ra­tions take ad­van­tage of the pro­gram, un­der­cut­ting Amer­i­can work­ers. He even warned of hu­man traf­fick­ing and la­bor abuses stem­ming from the H-2B pro­gram.

Mr. Har­ris, whose Mary­land dis­trict in­cludes a num­ber of crab-pick­ing and other sea­side re­sort busi­nesses that make use of the work­ers, sig­naled that he was ea­ger to get some­thing ac­com­plished.

“In the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment of low un­em­ploy­ment, we need to make sure that we have enough H-2B visas to keep our econ­omy go­ing strong,” Mr. Har­ris said. “I hope that we can solve the prob­lem with these visas be­fore the next hir­ing sea­son, es­pe­cially for our seafood pro­cess­ing and tourism in­dus­tries in my dis­trict.”

Mr. Rounds’ of­fice didn’t re­spond to re­peated in­quiries.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

More tem­po­rary for­eign­ers with H-2B visas would be land­scap­ing and do­ing other sea­sonal, nona­gri­cul­tural work un­der a pro­posed deal among key law­mak­ers. Em­ploy­ers would be strictly mon­i­tored.

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