The Department of Homeland Security on Monday announced a one-time increase of 15,000 additional visas for low-wage seasonal workers for the remainder of this fiscal year, a seeming about-face from President Trump's "Hire American" rhetoric, following heavy lobbying from 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.
The visas are for workers taking temporary jobs in the seafood, tourism, landscaping, construction and other seasonal industries — but not farm laborers.
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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 proving that they would not otherwise be able to meet their contractual obligations, or provide other evidence of severe financial loss, the officials said.
Asked how allowing more foreign workers aligns with Trump's America First policies — especially as the White House kicks off what it has promoted as "Made in America" week — one of the Homeland Security officials 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" 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," she said.
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, first-served basis, and 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.
But 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 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, 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 the 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 previously drew strong bipartisan support because lawmakers have a vested interest in supporting their home state 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 used 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.
"These cases suggest that the level of scrutiny for visa approval is inadequate and that employers may be using the program as a way around the rules of other guestworker programs," Vaughan wrote.
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, low-skilled 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 number of 1 million foreigners each year who received 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 (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, in May beseeched their congressional colleagues 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 “merit-based” immigration system that would favor high-skilled workers and close off avenues to lower-skilled 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.”
Washington Post reporter David Nakamura contributed to this report.