The Trump administration has decided to issue 15,000 additional H-2B foreign worker visas through the end of September, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced earlier today. The decision contradicts a key Trump campaign promise—protecting the most vulnerable American workers from foreign competition. “Congress gave me the opportunity to provide temporary relief to American businesses in danger of suffering irreparable harm due to a lack of available temporary workers,” said Homeland Secretary John Kelly in a statement. “As a demonstration of the Administration’s commitment to supporting American businesses, DHS is providing this one-time increase to the congressionally set annual cap.” According to DHS eligibility requirements, the visa increase will not be limited to specific industries, but rather to employers who claim they will suffer “irreparable harm” without additional H-2B visas. However, no evidence is required to verify this claim.
In early May, at the behest of the business lobby, Congress gave Kelly and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta the power to more than double the number of H-2B visas issued this fiscal year. Shortly after, Kelly indicated that he was receiving pressure from lawmakers and stakeholders on both sides of the issue, but hinted an increase was likely. “This is one of those things I wish I didn’t have discretion,” Kelly told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We’ll likely increase the numbers for this year, perhaps not by the entire number I’m authorized,” Kelly added at the time. Then, in a brazen move to force Kelly’s hand, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) put a “hold” on Lee Francis Cissna, President Trump’s nominee for director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It remains to be seen whether today’s modest H-2B increase satisfies Sen. Tillis’s insatiable desire for cheap foreign labor, or if he will continue blocking the qualified nominee to extort more H-2B visas for the next fiscal year, beginning on October 1.
The H-2B nonimmigrant visa program allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring low skilled foreign workers to the United States to fill temporary non-agricultural jobs. There is a cap on the total number of foreign workers who may be issued an H-2B visa or otherwise granted H-2B status during a fiscal year. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, Congress set the H-2B cap at 66,000 workers per fiscal year. However, May’s $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill gave Secretaries Kelly and Acosta the authority to ignore this cap and increase the number of low skilled foreign workers admitted by “the highest number” of H-2B nonimmigrants who participated in the H-2B returning worker exemption. As a reminder, in December 2015, House Speaker Paul Ryan inserted into the FY 2016 omnibus a provision that exempted from the H-2B cap all low skilled workers admitted between 2013 and 2015. There is no reliable data on the number of H-2B workers who took advantage of the returning worker exemption. However, it is estimated that this provision gave Kelly the authority to add around 70,000 additional foreign workers to the labor market through the end of the fiscal year.
FAIR previously warned the administration against increasing the number of low-skilled guest workers when Secretary Kelly first announced he was inclined to do so. “The administration’s decision to exceed the 66,000 cap not only undermines struggling American workers, but betrays unequivocal promises President Trump made in his campaign,” FAIR President Dan Stein charged at the time. “In President Trump’s own words, ‘the influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working class Americans—including immigrants themselves and their children—to earn a middle class wage,’” Stein added.
FAIR’s June 21 letter to Secretary Kelly urging against any H-2B visa increase can also be found here.