The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite Trump’s ‘Hire American’ pledge, budget bill would dramatically expand the number of foreign workers

Jose Cesada, an immigrant worker in the United States on an H-2B visa, rakes the cool-down path at the barn at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The horse-racing industry, dependent on immigrant workers, is facing a shortage of manpower due to a shortage of visas being issued. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

So much for President Trump’s “Hire American” promise.

Just two weeks after Trump signed an executive order vowing to crack down on a program designed to import high-skilled foreign labor, a provision slipped into the budget compromise with Democrats this week could double the number of visas for low-wage, seasonal workers such as those in the landscaping, forestry and hospitality industries.

The guest worker visa, known as the H-2B, is the exact kind that helps Trump staff his Mar-a-Lago golf resort.

Critics said the provision in the shutdown deal illustrates the limits of Trump’s “America First” ideology.  Economic realities and the complexities of immigration cannot be boiled down to a simple campaign slogan or governing platform, they argue.

“If Trump signs the bill and doesn’t speak out against this, that will contradict everything he has said about ‘Hire American,’ ” said Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Council. “This appropriations bill gives companies incentive to hire underpaid indentured 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.

Current law limits the number of such visas issued to 66,000 a year. The number could double under the budget bill being considered.

The draft bill allows the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consulting with the Secretary of Labor, to increase the number of foreign workers “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. The Trump Winery in Charlottesville employs workers on H-2A visas to help prune its vineyards.)

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how expanding the number of low-wage seasonal workers squares with Trump’s “America First” platform.

Industry representatives say there is no conflict because increasing the number of foreign guest workers will help preserve American jobs.

In Virginia, a number of crab-picking, oyster-shucking and bait-packing plants would be out of business without the H-2B visas, said Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board, which represents the state’s seafood industry.

The 66,000 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. And 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.

“We are not finding Americans who want to do this work,” Hutt said.

The average worker in Virginia seafood plants is between 50 and 60 years old, said A.J. Erskine, chairman of the Virginia Seafood Council. Young people aspire to go to college, he said — not toil up to 12 hours a day at $10 an hour in the tough working conditions of seafood manufacturing.

“We recruit all year long and come up with very little labor that is reliable and available,” Erskine said. “We certainly believe in ‘Hire American,’ but when you’re in a business that doesn’t have a labor pool to choose from, I’m not sure how else we would source labor. Without this temporary worker program, seafood businesses around the country would not operate.”

The seafood industry in Virginia alone requires between 500 to 1,000 H-2B visas each year, he said. Nearly all the workers come from Mexico, he said.

Without the foreign labor, there would be a devastating impact on the local and state economy, he said. Trucking, boating, packaging, refrigeration and fuel companies all rely on the seafood industry for steady work. Restaurants and grocery stores also count on the workers’ paychecks.

“It’s a big domino effect,” Hutt said. “This is Americans first. It we don’t get these workers, we will lose the local jobs.”

The industry has lobbied for a separate “seafood visa” to meet its needs, according to a new report by New American Economy to be released Wednesday. Some plants have also turned to undocumented workers to fill the most difficult jobs, the report said.

Paul Mendelsohn, lobbyist for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, said the industry would prefer to hire locally. It just can't find Americans to do the the work, despite the fact that most jobs start at $12 an hour.

"If anyone walks in and can pick up a shovel and do hard labor, then companies are pretty much required to hire them," Mendelsohn said.

But some critics dispute that there really is a labor shortage in the industries that rely most on the seasonal guest worker visas.

In landscaping, which accounts for about half of the H-2B visas issued, the unemployment rate was 8.6 percent for the first quarter of 2017, nearly double the national rate, said Costa, of the Economic Policy Institute. The unemployment rate is 11.3 percent in fishing and forestry, he said, and 10 percent in construction, where there are three unemployed workers for every job opening.

Costa said the institute's research has shown that wage rules often allow seasonal workers to be paid less than local average wages for U.S. workers in similar jobs. The H-2B workers, he said, earn no more than undocumented workers, on average. The workers are also vulnerable to abuse by their employers, to whom they are bound, he said.

Rules requiring employers to recruit and hire Americans first are not vigorously enforced, Costa added. Trump’s proposed budget includes cuts to an already understaffed Labor Department, further impeding its ability to enforce immigration rules.

Trump has used the 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.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, issued a statement this week calling on 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.

"The bottom line is that this issue deserves more thoughtful consideration."

Mendelsohn, the landscaping lobbyist, said the industry, too, is concerned about the way the visa expansion was handled because it is not a long-term fix. He would prefer that a law change be considered through the Judiciary Committee.

But given the economic realities, he said, "American businesses can’t wait for that to happen, so we appreciate anything that the administration and Congress can do to provide relief."