Good News and Bad News from the H-2B Program

By David North on August 31, 2022

The good news is that a governmental effort to divert some people from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) who might otherwise be illegal entrants at the southern border into legal H-2B workers seems to be working.

Better that these unskilled, non-agricultural workers be in the U.S. legally for a while and then return to their homelands than that they and their families are added to the turmoil at the southern border.

It should be borne in mind, however, that compared to the estimates of two million or so illegal entrants this year, the positive changes in the H-2B program seem to be in the neighborhood of 6,700. So, modified rapture.

What happened last December, as we reported at the time, was that as part of an arrangement to increase the number of H-2B visas (a bad idea), the government offered 6,600 additional visas if the employers would do their recruiting in the Northern Triangle and Haiti. If there had to be more of these visas (which I doubt), better that they go to the four nations listed.

We now have data on the number of H-2B visas issued in the specified countries for the period December 2021 through July 2022, as well as for the comparable period a year earlier, from December 2020 through July 2021.

The good news is that the number of H-2B visas issued for the four countries in the latter period was 6,701 more than in the earlier period.

H-2B Visas Issued in Two Recent
Periods in the Northern Triangle

Period El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Total
Dec. 2020 - July 2021 587 2,553 1,333 4,473
Dec. 2021 - July 2022 3,441 4,279 3,449 11,169
Difference +2,854 +1,726 +2,116 +6,696

Source: CIS calculations from U.S. Department of State monthly non-immigrant visa data.

The bad news is what happened to the numbers for Haiti. When U.S. employers were faced with a choice between two non-English-speaking work forces, they opted to hire brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking workers over Creole-speaking, Black ones by a margin of 6,696 to five. Had we added another column to the table above, it would have shown zero H-2B hires in Haiti for the first period, and five in the second period.

DHS unwittingly designed and executed a social science experiment. What if, under the immigration law, you offer employers a chance to hire workers from two different work forces, under exactly the same conditions? They voted by over 1,000 to one for the Central American ones.

There is a minor tradition of using small numbers of people from the Northern Triangle in this program, and no such tradition with Haiti, which may explain part of the difference.

High school grads in Haiti amount to about 5 percent of its population (against 86 percent in the U.S.), so you would think that there would be far fewer H-1B visas issued there than for unskilled workers in the H-2B population. In fact, however, in the most recent period there were 10 H-1B visas issued, compared to the five for the H-2Bs! In other words, some American employers seem not to be as biased as the H-2B ones are.

I see three takeaways from this data:

  1. The immigration law allows obvious racial (and other kinds of) discrimination, as we have pointed out in the past about preferential hiring of certain kinds of Indians in the H-1B program, such as young Hindu males from the upper and middle castes and from the south of the country.
  2. The H-2B employers, as a group, have egg on their face.
  3. Moving some H-2B slots away from nations that provide decreasing numbers of illegal entrants (i.e., Mexico and Jamaica) to those giving us increasing numbers of illegals, is a good idea, but if you want to make it work for the likes of Haiti, the employers must be given a stark choice — hire from a specified nation, or (gasp) get along with American workers.

The author is grateful to CIS Research Assistant Nicholas Ortiz for his help with this post.