Defense Spending, Guam, and H-2B Visas

By Preston Huennekens on December 14, 2017

The Pacific Daily News reports that USCIS is now allowing the approval of up to 4,000 H-2B workers to support military projects in the U.S. territory of Guam. In recent years, the H-2B approval rate for visas in Guam was close to zero, with the federal government citing "the [Guamanian] plaintiffs' inability to meet the eligibility criteria for the foreign worker program" as the reason for the low number of certifications. Local politicians accused the federal government of deliberately restricting its access to H-2B workers and celebrated this news as "relief" for the island, despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics' assessment that over 3,910 Guamanians (U.S. citizens) are seeking employment. Interestingly, H-2B workers in Guam are exempt from the 66,000 visa cap.

This provision is nestled in the Fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), better known as the defense spending bill signed by President Trump on December 12. The bill introduces the provisions in Section 1049 — Workforce Issues for Military Realignments in the Pacific. Section B specifically addresses H-2B workers:

H-2B WORKERS.—In the case of such an alien who seeks admission under section 101(a)(15)(H)(ii)(b) of such Act, such alien, if otherwise qualified, may, before October 1, 2023, be admitted under such section for a period of up to 3 years to perform service or labor on Guam or the Commonwealth pursuant to any agreement entered into by a prime contractor or subcontractor calling for services or labor required for performance of a contract or subcontract for construction, repairs, renovations, or facility services that is directly connected to, or associated with, the military realignment occurring on Guam and the Commonwealth, notwithstanding the requirement of such section that the service or labor be temporary. ... For any fiscal year, not more 4,000 aliens may be admitted to Guam and the Commonwealth pursuant to paragraph (1)(B). [Emphasis added.]

The visa cap exemption for Guam, in place since 2009, now lasts until 2023. Governor Eddie Calvo and Rep. Madeleine Bordallo lobbied heavily for H-2B "relief" for the island of over 162,000. Both government and non-government entities are eligible for the 4,000 H-2B workers so long as the projects they undertake are "because of the increased number of military personnel and military families moving to Guam," according to the Pacific News Center.

Guam's lobbying for the program is a testament to its popularity among employers nationwide. Applications for H-2B certified positions trend higher and higher every year. In 2016 the State Department issued 84,627 H-2B visas, an increase from the 69,684 issued in 2015. The State Department has not yet released the number of visas issued in 2017.

The H-2B program is controversial, and CIS analysis shows that there is no labor shortage in the occupations typically filled by H-2B workers. Just this past year the Department of Justice caught employers discriminating against Americans in favor of the temporary workers. California law enforcement arrested a company executive for selling H-2B visas. Often, the presence of these low-skilled temporary workers adversely affects the unemployed and low-skilled native workers. Despite these shortcomings, Guamanian leaders nevertheless fought for the inclusion of this H-2B provision in the defense spending bill.