As it has done previously, the leadership of Congress — in the dead of the night, as it were — has slipped in an opportunity to expand the H-2B program (for unskilled non-agricultural workers) into the omnibus funding bill passed by the House this morning and expected to pass the Senate momentarily. H-2B workers are used in the forestry, landscaping, and hospitality industries.
It was another one of those changes in legislation that escapes public hearings and floor votes, the way that Congress used to function.
Neil Munro of Breitbart reported that "the provision was pushed by Democratic and GOP politicians, led by North Carolina GOP Senator Thom Tillis." The article quoted a social media message from a lawn-care firm in the D.C. area thanking Virginia's two Democratic senators (Tim Kaine and Mark Warner) for signing a letter in support of the cap increase.
Many thanks, @timkaine & @MarkWarner for signing the letter to our Senate leaders urging them to include language in the FY18 omnibus package requiring caps to be increased for temporary worker visas. #SaveH2B. Time is running out for many small businesses.
— Green Acres Lawn Care (@GreenAcresLawnC) March 15, 2018
The H-2B program has a statutory ceiling of 66,000 new H-2B visas a year, Rather than mandating a higher number per se, the language inserted into the long and detailed omnibus bill gives the secretary of Homeland Security discretion to increase the number of such workers, but "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." Munro estimates, and this is probably correct, that the new limit would be about 100,000.
Those pushing the program want to expand the number of jobs taken from legal residents and given to the semi-indentured workers (most of whom are from Mexico), but seem to want to do it in the most opaque manner possible.
To that end they have employed three dodges:
- There is no new, higher number discussed; just a terribly obscure reference to a past number.
- That number, as it is expressed in the language, seems to relate to the ill-paid foreign workers' own preferences at some unstated time in the past.
- The difference between the old limit and the new one is not ordered by Congress, but the secretary of Homeland Security is given permission to expand the number of visas to the new limit.
Skillful maneuvering to be sure.
If one really wants to create more jobs for U.S. residents, as the president claims that he does, then one must disappoint powerful business interests who want cheap labor. And that means cutting back on existing foreign worker programs, not expanding them.
My suspicion is that new Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be pushed into raising the limit, just as her predecessor, John Kelly, was in the summer of 2016, as we reported at the time.
Maybe she, unlike Kelly, can avoid making the announcement, as he did, during a White House-proclaimed "Hire American Week".