Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are quietly launching a new effort to expand visas for low-skilled foreign workers in government funding bills — a push that could drive a deep ideological rift through both parties later this year.
Republicans and Democrats whose home states rely on immigrant labor are lobbying top appropriators to include language in this year’s funding bills to renew controversial provisions from last year’s omnibus spending measure that effectively quadrupled the number of low-skilled worker visas.
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Nine House lawmakers, led by Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), sent a letter last week urging the Appropriations Committee to keep those higher numbers intact. And key senators have already begun to discuss the issue.
“Many businesses will be severely impacted, and some may be unable to operate, without this cap relief,” said the House letter, obtained by POLITICO and addressed to Reps. John Carter (R-Texas) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), who head the panel that oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security. “Failure to enact this exemption will hurt seasonal businesses across the country.”
The program in question is the H-2B visa, which covers immigrants who work as landscapers, housekeepers and seafood processors. Those visas are legally capped at 66,000 per year, which pro-business advocates say is an artificially low number that could harm key U.S. industries.
The visa program divides both Democrats and the GOP. Though many Republicans support boosting visas for low-skilled workers, its quiet inclusion to last year’s massive omnibus spending bill prompted an uproar among conservatives. Powerful unions and liberal lawmakers also oppose efforts to expand it, criticizing not just the higher numbers but what they see as insufficient labor protections for workers.
And this year’s Hill push comes against a backdrop of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, whose hardline view toward immigrants and hire-Americans-first rhetoric has galvanized the right. However, Trump himself has a complicated history on this particular immigration issue.
“It’s frustrating that any of the [lawmakers] would push this,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the most outspoken critic on Capitol Hill of expanding immigration and Trump’s sole endorser in the Senate. “The program does not need to be expanded. If anything, it needs to be constricted.”
Officially, Trump has promised to rework the nation’s immigration laws into a system that requires companies to hire Americans first before considering foreign workers. Yet Trump has defended his use of temporary immigrant workers at his luxury Mar-a-Lago resort, saying he has “no choice but to do it.”
Two House lawmakers who signed on to Long’s letter — Republican Reps. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina and Chris Collins of New York — have also endorsed Trump.
“People who like him are seeing him as this restrictionist, but in practice, it’s really hard to tell what he’s going to be,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “But he can certainly influence the bill.”
Immigrants employed under the H-2B visa can work legally in the United States up to only 10 months at a time. But in last year’s omnibus spending bill, Congress got around the 66,000 annual cap by exempting so-called returning workers — immigrants who had used the visa in the past three fiscal years — from counting toward the limits, essentially expanding the program fourfold. That means the government could issue visas for 264,000 such temporary workers this fiscal year.
Much of the credit goes to Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the powerful top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee who has unapologetically advocated for the H-2B visa program because it benefits her home state’s seafood industry. Aides didn’t return a request seeking comment on whether Mikulski will push for similar provisions this year.
But in an interview, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who’s worked with Mikulski to overhaul the program, said senators are already in discussions about the H-2B provisions for this year’s spending bills. (Mikulski and Tillis have a shared interest in protecting their states’ seafood industries; the two have developed a close enough working relationship that Mikulski calls Tillis “Catfish.”)
“We’re looking at it because every year, it’s Band-Aid after Band-Aid,” Tillis said. “And then every season, we’re already hearing problems from the last one.”
Lawmakers such as Tillis and the House group are backed by hundreds of organizations — representing a wide array of businesses, from florists to producers of concrete pavement and ski resort operators — who are lobbying Congress to ensure they can get around the 66,000 limit on visas.
More than 1,000 organizations as part of the H-2B Workforce Coalition sent a letter to Senate and House committees in late March, asking Congress to keep last year’s expansion in this year’s funding bills. The members of the group say they often can’t find Americans to work temporary jobs to staff carnivals, maintain swimming pools and train horses.
But the AFL-CIO is already pushing back. In its own letter sent last week and obtained by POLITICO, the powerful union’s top lobbyist “strongly” urged lawmakers to keep all riders related to the guest-worker program out of appropriations measures. Expansion of the H-2B program isn’t the only problem for the AFL-CIO; the union is also concerned about an erosion of worker protection standards.
“Thousands of our members work in industries that are top users of the H-2B seasonal worker program,” William Samuel, the union's director of government affairs, wrote in the letter to Mikulski and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). “Misuse of the H-2B program harms them by artificially depressing wages, transforming permanent work to temporary, driving down labor standards and contributing to unemployment in these industries.”
Though conservatives such as Sessions were certainly the most vocal in their opposition last December when the omnibus was being drafted, liberals weren’t too pleased, either. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and six other liberal Senate Democrats including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois tried to keep those provisions out of the final omnibus, without success.
None of the appropriations bills that would deal with H-2B issues — the DHS measure and the Labor and Health and Human Services legislation — have been released on either the Senate or House side. Both bills are magnets for controversial riders on issues such as immigration and Obamacare, and Appropriations Committee aides declined to comment on provisions in funding bills that haven't yet been released.
Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes lobbying on the H-2B is likely to continue.
“For [businesses], it’s just simple math,” said Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the pro-reform Partnership for a New American Economy, which supports the H-2B program. “Their reality is that it could be peak season … and they won’t be able to open for season if they can’t get a few key workers. For them, this is crazy.”
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