New Bill Would Swell H-2B Program to Over 100,000 Annually

By Preston Huennekens on January 18, 2019

Each Congress begins with ambitious lawmakers ready to introduce new pieces of legislation. The new 116th Congress is no different. On January 15, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced the "Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act" (S.135), which would completely change the H-2B program, and not for the better. Thune's proposal would see the number of H-2B workers jump from 66,000 to over 100,000 every year. Thune introduced similar legislation last year as well.

The senator's office released a statement outlining its effects. The proposed legislation would provide states with low unemployment rates (under 3.5 percent) up to 2,500 H-2B guestworkers. These additional laborers would be exempt from the 66,000 annual cap. The bill mandates that states that had fewer than 2,500 workers the previous year would only be able to increase next year's total by 25 percent. For example, if a state had 1,500 H-2B workers in 2019, it could only receive 375 cap-exempt workers in 2020 under the legislation.

Thune's press release estimates that his bill would usher in great changes to the program. The statement reads:

Using 2018 unemployment rates and the full-year 2017 H-2B allocation figures, Thune's bill would grant 13 of 21 states meeting the 3.5 percent unemployment threshold full H-2B relief. If all qualifying states used their full growth limit, including those capped at 2,500 visas, the bill would provide a guaranteed baseline of 36,004 visas, effectively providing 102,004 H-2B visas in the year.

Thune is a long-time supporter of the H-2B program. He either introduced or co-sponsored different iterations of the "Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act" in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2017. These meant to change cap exemptions by not counting returning H-2B workers. Thune's new bill is a novel approach to expanding the H-2B program.

The bill benefits Thune's own state. South Dakota meets the requirements of this bill. It has a low unemployment rate (3.0 percent) coupled with a low number of annual H-2B workers. It is also sparsely populated. The state ranks 48th in population density and 47th in total population. Given South Dakota's labor situation, Thune is presumably doing what he thinks is best for his constituents.

Yet increasing the number of H-2B visas by 54.6 percent and adding further cap-exempt statuses is a flawed proposal. Thune's bill is a Band-Aid remedy to a problem that requires surgery. Thune argues that the state has a labor shortage. A domestic guestworker program could match Americans to open jobs in South Dakota. Once matched, laborers may very well settle there. Surely that is more desirable to the Mount Rushmore State than importing temporary seasonal H-2B workers. Newly settled workers would buy property, spend money year-round in the state, support local businesses, enroll in local school systems, and increase South Dakota's population. Businesses would have a reliable labor force instead of gambling on H-2B visas dominated by the landscaping industries in Texas and Florida.

It is unknown how far this bill will travel in the current Congress. The Library of Congress has not even released the full text online. At the end of the 115th session, a number of Republican senators expressed their desire to double the H-2B visa cap, including senators who previously opposed such proposals. It is too early to declare Thune's "Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act" dead in the water as long as Republicans and Democrats both support increasing the cap. Instead, they should look to alternatives that empower under-educated and low-skilled native workers. A domestic guestworker program requires more effort than lazily raising the visa cap. But it would bring great benefits to the country and to states like South Dakota.