As President Trump threatened to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border in recent days, his Department of Homeland Security nearly doubled the number of temporary guest worker visas available this summer.
The H-2B visa allows foreign workers to come to the United States legally and work for several months at companies such as landscapers, amusement parks or hotels. About 80 percent of these visas went to people from Mexico and Central America last year, government data shows.
Trump says there is a national emergency at the southern border because too many people are trying to come to the United States illegally or to seek asylum. On Friday, he implored migrants to turn around and go home.
“Can’t take you anymore,” Trump said, while standing at the border in California. “Our country is full.”
But his administration is sending a different message to some short-term workers. With the additional visas, the Trump administration is on track to grant 96,000 H-2B visas this fiscal year, the most since 2007, when George W. Bush was president.
“It’s ironic that Trump is demagoguing and railing against a so-called dangerous and scary flood of migrants and caravans from Mexico and Central America, and even threatening to shut down the border, while at the same time using his legal authority to grow a guest worker program,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
A major theme of Trump’s presidential campaign was that foreign workers were stealing U.S. jobs, but lately he has said it might be necessary to bring in more guest workers because the economy is doing so well that companies can’t find enough people to fill jobs. The unemployment rate, at 3.8 percent, is near a 50-year low.
There is bipartisan support in Congress pushing the administration to make this move. A group of senators, including Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), sent a letter to the Trump administration urging it to let in more H-2B workers. The Department of Homeland Security decided at the end of March to increase the number of visas offered and is expected to publish details in the Federal Register soon.
The H-2B program is supposed to grant 66,000 visas a year, with about half for the winter months and half for the summer, but Congress gave the Trump administration the authority to issue an additional 69,000 this fiscal year.
DHS ultimately decided to issue the extra 30,000 to people who have held H-2B visas before.
There is such a flood of interest in these visas that typically, they are all gone within minutes of the application process opening up. Trump’s own hotels have used H-2B workers, and the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida applied for 78 of these visas last year.
Advocates for U.S. workers say Trump is undermining domestic workers by granting so many H-2B visas.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which urges lower immigration, said that Trump “betrays American workers” with this H-2B visa increase.
The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, put out research this week showing that H-2B visa workers are typically paid less than American workers who do the same jobs. For example, landscaping workers on the visa are paid an average of $12.94 an hour, more than a dollar less than the $14.28 average wage paid to U.S. workers, according to an analysis of data from the Labor Department and H-2B visa applications.
Many businesses that employ these workers say they pay the going rates in their regions.
“Trump seems to be perfectly fine with letting people migrate to the United States if they’re going to be exploited workers, and especially if they’re going to work for one of his companies,” Costa said.
Many firms say they are in desperate need of workers and have no other options. The government says it received 30 times more H-2B visa applications this year compared with last. Crab companies on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are among those trying to get more of these legal guest workers.
A DHS spokeswoman said Congress “is in the best position” to know the right number of H-2B visas that are needed for the economy. She said the department is urging Congress to fix the immigration system and set appropriate visa levels.
Trump has been hinting in recent weeks that he might allow more guest workers because the economy is doing so well.
“I got all these companies moving in. They need workers. We have to bring people into our country to work these great plants that are opening up all over the place,” he said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.