The Department of Homeland Security on Monday announced a one-time increase of 15,000 additional visas for low-wage, seasonal workers for the remainder of this fiscal year, a seeming about-face from President Trump's "Hire American" rhetoric, following heavy lobbying from the fisheries, hospitality and other industries that rely on temporary foreign workers.
The increase represents a 45 percent bump from the number of H-2B visas normally issued for the second half of the fiscal year, said senior Homeland Security officials in a call with reporters Monday.
The visas are for workers taking seasonal jobs in the seafood, tourism and other industries — but not farm laborers.
Businesses must first attest that their firms would suffer permanent "irreparable harm" without importing foreign workers, and will be required to retain documents proving that they would not otherwise be able to meet their contractual obligations, the officials said.
The officials said the government made the decision after "considering the interest of U.S. workers" and has created a tip line for reports of worker exploitation and abuse.
"[Secretary John Kelly] first and foremost is committed to protecting U.S. workers and strengthening the integrity of our immigration system," one of the Homeland Security officials said.
Congress paved the way to increasing the number of H-2B workers in May when it passed an omnibus budget to avoid a government shutdown. Part of the deal included giving the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to increase the number of foreign workers, after consulting with the Secretary of Labor, "upon determination that the needs of American businesses cannot be satisfied in fiscal year 2017 with United States workers who are willing, qualified, and able to perform temporary nonagricultural labor." (Farm workers enter the U.S. under a different visa, known as the H-2A.)
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Current law limits the number of such visas issued to 66,000 a year — split among two halves of the year. The cap has already been reached this year. Visas for more than 120,000 positions have been requested so far in fiscal 2017, according to Department of Labor statistics. And the seafood industry, which began its hiring season in April, competes with other industries, such as landscaping and tourism, that rely heavily on temporary summer workers.
The H-2B program has drawn strong bipartisan support in the past because lawmakers have a vested interest in supporting their states' most critical industries – whether it's crab-picking in Maryland, ski resorts in Colorado or logging in Washington. But some senators are criticizing their colleagues' efforts to bypass public debate about changing immigration law.
Other critics dispute that there really is a labor shortage in the industries that rely most on the seasonal guest worker visas, accusing the industries of exploiting foreign workers at the expense of American jobs.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the committee, in May had beseeched their congressional colleagues to remove the provision and give the Judiciary Committee time to consider any changes to immigration laws.
"This move by leadership and appropriators cedes portions of this authority to the executive branch without a public debate," Grassley and Feinstein said. "We understand the needs of employers who rely on seasonal H-2B workers if the American workforce can't meet the demand, but we are also aware of the potential side effects of flooding the labor force with more temporary foreign workers, including depressed wages for all workers in seasonal jobs."
Trump himself has used the visas to hire temporary workers at his golf resorts in Palm Beach, Florida, and Jupiter, Florida.
"I've hired in Florida during the prime season – you could not get help," Trump said during a 2015 primary debate. "Everybody agrees with me on that. They were part-time jobs. You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, because you couldn't get help in those hot, hot sections of Florida."