US to Issue 15,000 More H-2B Guest Worker Visas

US to Issue 15,000 More H-2B Guest Worker Visas

To address a shortage of labor in seasonal industries like hospitality and tourism, the US Department of Homeland Security on Monday authorized the release of an additional 15,000 H-2B visas, which are designated for low-skill, non-farm seasonal workers, for businesses that can prove they will be harmed if they cannot access foreign labor this summer, the New York Times reports:

Each year, the government makes available 66,000 H-2B visas, which are divided between the winter and summer seasons. The summer allotment has been quickly exhausted because Congress, concerned about the visa program’s impact on American workers, chose in December not to renew a provision that did not count workers who previously had H-2B visas against the quota. That decision halved the number of available visas. Congress then gave the homeland security secretary, John F. Kelly, the authority to release more visas, which a bipartisan group of lawmakers had been calling on him to do since May. …

Before being granted a seasonal visa, businesses must show that they have tried to fill vacancies with domestic workers by placing advertisements. They must also attest, under penalty of perjury, that their businesses will suffer permanent and severe financial loss if they are not allowed to hire foreign workers.

The decision to issue more H-2B visas seems to conflict with President Donald Trump’s “Hire American” policy and his attempts to rein in other work visa programs like the H-1B, but DHS officials are depicting the decision as pro-American businesses, Quartz’s Ana Campoy adds, though it also may not be sufficient:

The visa expansion might not be large enough to satisfy some companies in need of workers. Congress earlier this year had authorized the DHS to offer up to 64,000 more H2B visas, but it was up Homeland Security secretary John Kelly to decide exactly how many to grant. (The number of H2B visas issued has fluctuated wildly over time.)

Businesses that rely on the H-2B program have also expressed concern that the expansion is coming too late in the summer season and that by the time these workers are in place, they will have little time left to benefit from the extra help. The ad hoc expansion of the program has also faced criticism from members of Congress who see it as a poor solution to these industries’ staffing challenges. According to Politico’s Morning Shift, at least two Senators have spoken out against the move, saying it might make matters worse for low-wage American workers in these fields:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) issued a joint statement Monday blasting the guest worker expansion. “New research suggests that wages in some H-2B fields have been stagnant for years,” they wrote. “The administration’s decision to increase the number of H-2B visas will only exacerbate this problem.”

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute’s director of immigration law and policy research Daniel Costa is similarly critical of the H-2B expansion. In a report issued on Monday, Costa argues that the latest labor market data don’t justify issuing more H-2B visas, as the labor shortages the decision is meant to address may not exist:

At the national level, it is worth pointing out that there is no evidence at all of labor shortages in the labor market that are significant enough to move national data trends. Despite much-welcome progress in reducing the national unemployment rate in recent years, and despite the fact that the unemployment rate has now reached pre-Great Recession levels, many other labor market indicators signal an economy that still has some way to go before genuine full employment is attained. The share of adults between the ages of 25 and 54 (“prime-age” adults who traditionally have very strong labor force attachments), for example, has just recently clawed back half of the peak-to-trough decline it suffered during the Great Recession (EPI 2017a). Most persuasively, there is no evidence at all of a durable acceleration in the growth of either wages or prices. …

While there is no evidence that labor shortages are a significant feature of the national labor market, could there be shortages in particular occupations? It’s always possible. Determining whether a labor shortage exists in a particular occupation can be a difficult and inexact science, but those claiming shortages exist should at least provide the most rudimentary data consistent with such a claim. For example, if an occupation has seen flat or declining wages coupled with consistently high unemployment rates over a prolonged period of time, those are strong indicators that the occupation is not experiencing a shortage.