A Good Idea That Didn't Work: More Central Americans in H-2B program

By David North on July 8, 2020

It was a good idea when the Department of Homeland Security sought to broaden participation of people from the Northern Triangle nations of Central America in the H-2B (unskilled, non-agricultural) foreign worker program in March 2020; the notion was that it might divert some of the pressure on our southern border into legal channels. (It was also a good idea when I floated it in June 2019.)

The idea was that at least some of the people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras might opt for legal non-immigrant jobs in the United States rather than seeking asylum after entering illegally. DHS set aside 10,000 H-2B slots for this purpose, but did not require employers to hire workers from these three nations; it assumed that there would be enough interest among H-2B employers that the slots would be used as intended.

Then the virus crisis hit us. The number of H-2B visas for workers from the three nations actually dropped, as the table indicates.

H-2B Visas Issued in
Spring 2019 and 2020
in the Northern Triangle

Nation March - May 2019 March - May 2020
El Salvador 360 113
Guatemala 764 234
Honduras 136 120
Totals 1,260 467

Source: U.S. Department of State, "Monthly Nonimmigrant
Visa Issuance Statistics"
for the months in question.

Once the crisis passes, as it will eventually, DHS might dust off this idea, and use it on H-2A (agricultural) employers as well as those in the H-2B program, and insist that if an employer wants to use one or the other of these programs that they have to use a certain percentage of workers from these countries.

The United States, which could cause foreign worker recruitment in a given nation overseas, does not do so because employers might object.

Our national impotence in that regard was something I learned about more than 50 years ago when I was working on the farm labor program for the U.S. secretary of labor. A mild little man, an official of the then-British Honduras colonial government, came to see us to try to get U.S. growers to hire workers from his colony (now Belize), saying that his government would even pay the airfare of the workers from Belize City to Kingston, with Jamaica being an H-2A recruiting location. We had to tell him our hands were tied; H-2A employers made those decisions, and the U.S. government had no sway over them.

What the man wanted were some of those miserable, dangerous jobs in Florida, in which the workers cut sugarcane by hand, then a monopoly of Jamaicans and Barbadians.

I remember being thoroughly depressed about the modesty of the request, the utter poverty that it represented, and our inability to lift a finger for him. Little, if any, Florida cane is now cut by hand.

The author is grateful to CIS intern Kevin Berghuis for his research assistance.