Due to public health and economic conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration should cancel the announced expansion of the H-2B unskilled guestworker program, which would add 35,000 new unskilled workers, the first batch of which is scheduled to be distributed April 1. Further, there is a good case for suspending admission of all temporary workers, with few exceptions, until the crisis subsides and the economy begins to recover. The State Department has suspended visas for many exchange workers, and DHS should follow suit with respect to guestworker programs under its management. Here's why:
- Halting admission of these workers will help prevent further spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) into the United States. There is no easy or effective way to be sure that arriving foreign workers and their families are not bringing the coronavirus. To eliminate the risk, the government would have to screen and/or quarantine them. Even if it were possible, taxpayers should not be on the hook for that. These programs fall into the category of "non-essential travel".
- Equally important, increasing the number of guestworkers at this time would only add to the economic distress caused by the pandemic and public response to it. Businesses are being shuttered and many thousands of workers are losing their jobs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reportedly told senators that unemployment could creep up to 20 percent because of the pandemic. This mass dislocation is temporary, but some jobs may be lost for many months, and others possibly for good, so if employers have a genuine need for workers, there are many Americans now available to fill those jobs.
- Many, if not most, of the employers who have filed for H-2B workers are in sectors of the economy that are hard-hit by this crisis, according to Department of Labor H-2B statistics. More than 40 percent of the workers requested are for landscapers and groundskeepers, which is hardly a job Americans won't or can't do — already, two-thirds of groundskeepers are Americans. A large share of the rest are housekeepers, food processors, amusement park workers, waiters, and cooks. It's pretty hard to make the case that these workers are needed now.
- The H-2B visa deal with Guatemala has been unilaterally suspended. This year, in the fourth consecutive "one-time-only" expansion of the H-2B program, the Trump administration added a new twist, setting aside 10,000 visas for workers from the three Central American countries that are the main source of the influx of families and children arriving illegally at our southern border. The visa provision helped sweeten the deal for these countries to accept certain groups of migrants caught trying to take advantage of catch-and-release policies. Now Guatemala has announced that it will cease accepting these migrants, and apparently other deportees, due to the coronavirus situation. So the administration should feel released from any obligation to offer the H-2B visas as a way to help address the border crisis.
The H-2B program is an extraneous visa category that displaces Americans, exploits workers, contributes to illegal settlement, and now presents a public-health threat. The president should start by canceling the 2020 expansion, and then suspend other temporary worker admissions. Besides helping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, shutting off the flow of visa workers will help get more Americans back to work. This is an opportunity to see just how essential to our economy these visas really are.