WASHINGTON ― Bowing to pressure from industries that rely on seasonal workers from overseas, President Donald Trump’s administration said Monday it will allow employers to bring in an additional 15,000 temporary workers this fiscal year to deal with what it described as a labor shortage.
Trump vowed during the campaign to discourage businesses from using foreign workers and to focus on hiring Americans first. But as president, he has faced bipartisan demand for allowing more temporary workers, not fewer. The announcement Monday indicates Trump is willing to acquiesce to employers on the issue.
The administration insisted the visa boost is not incompatible with its “America first” pledge.
“We’re talking about American businesses that are at risk of suffering irreparable harm if they don’t get additional H-2B workers, so we do think that fits into the ‘America first’ focus of the administration,” Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan told reporters. “We’re asking these businesses to attest that if they do not get additional workers they will be harmed, so this does help with American businesses continuing to prosper.”
To receive the visas, businesses must attest they would suffer irreparable harm if they cannot bring in those workers. The government does not require them to submit evidence, but requires them to maintain documents that could act as evidence for three years. DHS also created a new tip line for people to report potential violations or abuse of the program.
The Trump administration’s decision to increase the number of H-2B visas, even just temporarily, shows how the president’s campaign talk is now colliding with powerful employers and his own party.
The H-2B program allows workers from places like Mexico and Guatemala to come to the U.S., work for a few months at a government-set prevailing wage, and then return to their home countries, only to repeat the process the following year. Large U.S. industries such as hospitality, seafood processing, and landscaping and forestry have come to rely on the relatively cheap labor supplied through the H-2B pipeline. Trump’s own businesses, including his resort Mar-a-Lago, have used the program.
But there’s been an outcry from employers in those industries saying they can’t find enough workers right now, as they’ve been squeezed by a dearth of visas and the low unemployment rate. Hoteliers in Maine, for instance, say they are barely functioning in what should be peak season. After appeals from employers in their home districts, representatives in Washington have been haranguing the administration to act.
The way Trump spoke on the campaign trail, one would expect him to limit the number of available H-2B visas, thereby forcing employers to raise wages until local, U.S.-born workers were willing to take the jobs. But now that he occupies the White House, Trump is apparently coming around to the employers’ point of view, which is that there aren’t enough American workers willing to take the jobs at wages employers can afford to pay.
The government hit its cap for H-2B visas in mid-March, which many businesses said left them unable to staff up for the summer. In May, Congress passed a bill instructing the DHS secretary to consult with the Department of Labor to determine if the government should increase the number of temporary nonagricultural work visas available until the end of the fiscal year.
Daniel Costa, an immigration expert at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said there is no real evidence of a nationwide labor shortage in the industries that rely on H-2B visas, although employers could be strapped in certain geographic areas. In an analysis of 10 occupations, Acosta said he found that wages had remained stagnant or declined in nine of them ― an indication that employers aren’t raising wages the way they normally would if they had to attract workers.
The available data “suggests that raising the H-2B cap is a bad idea,” Costa said in an email. Instead of adding more visas, the White House should focus “on program oversight, on rooting out bad-actor employers who violate H-2B rules, and on protecting the migrant workers who come to the United States in search of better opportunities.”
NumbersUSA, an organization that opposes additional immigration, urged the administration not to increase the number of H-2B visas. Roy Beck, president of the organization, said Monday that the increase could ”reverse the trend of reports emerging around the country of employers working harder and raising pay to successfully recruit more unemployed Americans for lower-skilled jobs.”
“Congress gave Kelly the authority to put around 70,000 more of those jobs out of the reach of Americans; at least Kelly limited the damage to keeping just 15,000 more Americans out of the labor market,” he said in a statement. “Nonetheless, this is yet another example of the administration and Congress failing to keep the Trump campaign promise of putting American workers first.”