Posted on December 16, 2015

Increasing the Number of Guest-Worker Visas Will Hurt America’s Most Vulnerable Workers

Ian Smith, National Review, December 16, 2015

Pro-labor advocates are criticizing a new addition to the Senate’s omnibus spending bill, a provision they say would quadruple the number of H-2B visas for unskilled guest workers, for a total of more than 250,000. The visa program has been described by the AFL-CIO as “deeply harmful” to American workers; and the omnibus insert, sponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) and Senator Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), has already been condemned by a bipartisan group of senators, including Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), and Jeff Sessions (R., Al.).

The Mikulski-Tillis bill appears to be a copy of the Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act (SOSSBA). Like SOSSBA, the Mikulski-Tillis bill would exclude returning H-2B temporary workers from the normal annual cap of 66,000. Although SOSSBA was previously in place, Congress failed to renew it in 2008.

The H-2B program is designed to import temporary, seasonal, non-agricultural guest workers, mostly in the areas of landscaping, forestry, hotels, seafood processing, restaurants, amusement parks, and construction. Many of these unskilled jobs traditionally go to society’s most vulnerable–including single women, the disabled, the elderly, minorities, teenagers, students, and first-generation immigrants. H-2B employers love the program because, as with the H-1B program for skilled foreigners, the worker’s visa is tied to his employment, which makes him less likely to unionize. Unsurprisingly, the Chamber of Commerce lists expanding the H-2B program as one of its “Policy Priorities for 2015.” And like most of our immigration programs, the H-2B operates mechanistically, giving jobs to foreign workers without any consideration for domestic labor conditions: Regardless of the state of the economy, the cap stays the same.

Although SOSSBA includes a reference to “small businesses,” most H-2B employers, according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), are not small or seasonal; in fact, they are mid- to large-size companies and recruiters who petition for H-2Bs so they can hire employees who work in the U.S. for ten months out of the year, year after year. The benefit to H-2B employers’ operating costs is apparently worth the lobbying effort. In 2008, CIS found that Senator Mikulski, a long-time champion of SOSSBA, received tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from the biggest users of the program.