In April 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 18837 — a directive to "Buy American and Hire American". The order signaled the president's intent to defend the interests of American workers, one of his key campaign promises. Some of his supporters were less-skilled and less-educated voters who shared his concerns that widespread immigration (and foreign guestworker programs) would shrink their job prospects. The executive order states that:
In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States ... the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall ... propose new rules and issue new guidance, to supersede of revise previous rules and guidance if appropriate, to protect the interests of United States workers in the administration of our immigration system.
This has not happened. Instead of reforming the guestworker system, Trump has allowed it to flourish. In its latest action, the Department of Homeland Security announced today that it is raising the 2019 H-2B cap by 30,000. The additional visas are available to H-2B guestworkers who previously worked in the United States within the past three years.
The H-2B visa allows employers to hire foreign workers for non-agricultural jobs that do not require higher education, including landscaping, cleaning, hotels, etc. I've explained before how the H-2B program is a raw deal for Americans, and I highlight those points below:
- Data show that employers pay H-2B workers much less than their American counterparts.
- The H-2B program distorts the labor market and artificially props up inefficient companies, giving them no incentive to reform their hiring practices.
- H-2B prevents the neediest Americans (ex-convicts, recovering addicts, the homeless, high school dropouts, etc.) from securing meaningful employment that could transform their lives.
- The H-2B visa is unnecessary because a domestic replacement could do the same thing.
Despite these problems, the Trump administration has repeatedly increased the number of H-2B visas. There is a statutory annual cap of 66,000, but in 2017 and 2018, the DHS secretary permitted "temporary" one-time increases of 15,000 more guestworkers, as authorized by Congress. Trump could have stopped this by ordering the secretary to do nothing, since Congress chose not to openly raise the cap, instead giving DHS the authority to do so, if it chose (ensuring that Congress avoided any political responsibility for the decision). In February 2019, Trump signed a spending bill that allows the DHS secretary to raise to H-2B cap to as high as 135,000. This would be an alarming increase that contradicts the president's stated priorities.
Today's decision increases the H-2B cap by "only" 30,000, rather than the full 67,000 Congress authorized, but this surge nonetheless increases the cap to 96,000. Not even under President Obama did H-2B visas rise to such high levels, as the table below shows:
|Fiscal Year||H-2B Visas||President|
Source: State Department, "Table XVI(B) - Nonimmigrant Visas Issued by Classification", Report of the Visa Office, 2004-2008, 2009-2013, 2014-2018, accessed March 27, 2019.
* Increase in cap; total figures not yet available, but visas have exceeded the cap since 2013.
President Trump continues to increase the number of H-2B guestworkers every time he has the opportunity. This is entirely his own administration's fault. He could, at any time, direct Secretary Nielsen to not increase the cap. This would help American workers and fulfill his promise to voters that he outlined in his original "Buy American and Hire American" executive order. His supporters did not vote for more guestworkers — they voted to return Americans to the workforce.