DHS Approves 30,000 More H-2B Workers
By Preston Huennekens | May 10, 2019
This week, the Trump administration announced their decision to release 30,000 additional H-2B visas for fiscal year 2019. The H-2B visa allows employers in non-agricultural industries to hire foreign guest-workers. While the program has a statutory annual cap of 66,000, language included in recent spending bills have given the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authority to temporarily raise this cap. This is the largest increase allowed under the Trump administration.
The February government shutdown ended when President Trump signed H.J. Res. 31, now Public Law 116-6. A late addition of Division H section 105 inserted the provision allowing the DHS secretary to increase the number of visas. It reads,
“The Secretary of Homeland Security… may increase the total number of aliens who may receive a visa... by not more than the highest number of H–2B nonimmigrants who participated in the H–2B returning worker program in any fiscal year in which returning workers were exempt from such numerical limitation.”
The returning worker exemption at its height brought in over 69,000 cap-exempt workers. This legislative trickery allowed the DHS secretary to double the number of visas issued. In April, DHS announced it was planning to release 30,000 visas and now the White House has signed off on the proposed increase.
In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, similar legislative language allowed the DHS secretaries (John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen, respectively) to release an additional 15,000 visas. It is unclear why DHS under new acting secretary Kevin McAleenan chose to raise FY 2019’s “one-time” increase from 15,000 to 30,000.
The H-2B program remains controversial due to the number of studies which show employers pay H-2B workers much less than national averages for their job category. It remains a fixture of the immigration debate because of heavy lobbying from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and smaller outfits such as the Seasonal Employment Alliance. Much like illegal workers, H-2B workers compete with unskilled and low-educated Americans. These companies would rather use short-term guest workers instead of hiring a full-time American. For a president who emphasizes the need to hire Americans, the continued growth of the H-2B guestworker program is a worrying sign.