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Senators Prod DHS to Lift Guest Worker Visa Cap

Barn worker Jose Cesada, an immigrant worker in the United States on an H-2B visa, rakes the cool down path at the barn of trainer Dale Romans on the backside at Churchill Downs on April 19, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators on Monday penned a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly asking that he lift the cap on H-2B visas, so that American businesses can hire seasonal workers required to operate.

The Trump administration’s recent handling of the H-2B visa program has drawn criticism from groups who believe the president is failing to uphold campaign promises on a strict immigration policy platform that helped him win the White House.

DHS announced last week that it planned to lift the 66,000 cap on H-2B visas for this summer, a move made in response to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill for fiscal 2017, which was approved in May. The omnibus bill allowed Kelly, with counsel from Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, the authority to nearly double the 66,000 cap.

Tuesday’s letter – signed by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Mich.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Thune (R-S.D.) and others – followed reports that the number of additional visas awarded could be as low as 18,500. The lawmakers also raised concerns about the timing of visa approvals, noting that many of the documents might not be authorized until late July, meaning work wouldn’t start until mid-August.

“Businesses in our states, particularly in our tourism industries, rely on the H-2B visa program to hire extra workers in the summer tourism season, when demand is greatest,” the letter reads. “The delay in approving additional visas during much of the peak season could hurt local employers’ ability to keep their businesses going and meet demand.”

Rob Law, director of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in an interview Wednesday that the letter is another example of Washington “at its worst.” He said it shows that some lawmakers have greater allegiance to corporate donors seeking cheap labor than American constituents who are capable and in need of the jobs offered through the H-2B visa program. H-2Bs are intended for low-skilled workers – or, as Law described, run of the mill, blue-collar services.

“There are more than enough unemployed United States citizens who were left behind in the previous administration’s economy that are capable of doing these jobs,” Law said, calling the administration’s decision to lift the cap “a betrayal” of the promises Trump made while running for office.

He added that many of the jobs filled through the H-2B program are for seasonal workers at swimming pools and golf courses, jobs that he believes should be filled by young Americans in school. He argued that the businesses lobbying to lift the cap are simply unwilling to pay fair wages for American labor.

Though FAIR would like to see the program eliminated altogether, Law said that H-2B visas are useful under very narrow circumstances, where there is a true labor shortage and guest workers are necessary. Even in that instance, he argued that guest workers should be paid a competitive wage.

Law also took issue with the “very sneaky” way in which Congress lifted the cap, by abdicating its authority to the executive branch through an appropriations bill. If Congress wants to change the cap, he said, lawmakers should accomplish that through the legislative process.

“That’s not the way the system is supposed to work,” he said.

Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) also signed onto the letter.

“We respectfully urge you to use the authority provided by Congress to increase the number of H-2B visas available to seasonal workers, and to work with the Department of Labor to ensure that visas are available as soon as possible,” the lawmakers wrote to Kelly.