The Spending Bill Potentially Doubles the Number of H-2B Workers

By Preston Huennekens on February 14, 2019

The controversial spending bill released this morning has a number of serious immigration-related issues. My colleagues have discussed its shortcomings on Twitter and in blog posts. Its authors released the 1,169-page bill online at 3 a.m., and some lawmakers had not even seen the bill before noon.

Adding to the confusion, there are at least two different versions floating around online. A version released by the Appropriations Committee is missing ten pages that are in the version released later by the Rules Committee. What's in those ten pages?

A huge increase in guest-workers. The current text would allow companies to import thousands of additional H-2B (non-agricultural low-skilled) workers by allowing the Secretary of Homeland Security to increase the statutory cap. In years past, Congress allocated 15,000 additional visa spots to the Secretary. This version is a bit different.

Buried late in the bill on page 1,161 lies Division H: Title 1, Sec. 105. The text describes the proposed cap increase:

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. [Emphasis added.]

The language is deliberately confusing, but offers an alarming proposal by way of the "returning worker" exemption The Congressional Research Service describes the returning worker exemption as "exempting from the cap returning H-2B workers who had been counted against the cap in any one of the three prior fiscal years." Congress passed worker exemptions for fiscal years 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2016. The highest number of these exemptions was 69,320 in FY 2007. This bill does not revive the returning worker exemption, but uses those numbers as a benchmark by which to establish an addition to the cap limit – in this case, 69,320.

This bill allows the DHS secretary to increase the cap by "no more" than the highest number of historical exempt returning workers. This would potentially more than double the current number of permitted H-2B workers. Secretary Nielsen will have the authority to add up to 69,320 spots to the cap of 65,000, for a potential total of more than 135,000.

H-2B guest workers depress the wages of low-skilled and low-educated Americans. These Americans are often those who need a job the most. Doubling the number of H-2B laborers is a far cry from President Trump's promise to protect American workers. Instead, this provision betrays them.