The Biden administration announced this week that it will grant an additional 64,000 H-2B seasonal worker visas on top of the already nearly doubled standard amount typically available each year, sparking concern from at least one top Republican.
The Departments of Labor and Homeland Security announced that they would be issuing a regulation to add an additional 64,716 temporary nonagricultural worker visas for FY 2021, on top of the 66,000 H-2B authorized by Congress.
The visas are used to give temporary legal status to workers in seasonal occupations such as landscaping and hotel and restaurant work. Employers must certify that there are not enough U.S. workers who are qualified and willing to fill the spots, and that it will not hurt the wages and conditions of other workers.
But the program has proved controversial, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing concern about abuse of vulnerable employees, and fears that it incentivizes companies to employ cheap labor from abroad rather than Americans.
The departments have typically gone above the statutory cap in recent years, but typically in stages. DHS said that by making more visas available early, it is "acting swiftly to address employers’ needs for additional seasonal workers."
Of those visas, 20,000 will be earmarked for workers from Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and Honduras — part of the Biden administration’s efforts to combat the crisis at the southern border by expanding legal immigration pathways from hotspot countries. During the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June, Biden had promised to expand visa programs as part of that effort to increase legal pathways.
The remaining 44,716 extra visas will be made available to returning workers and visa recipients from the last three fiscal years.
Meanwhile, the departments announced a new Worker Protection Taskforce that looks at targeting threats to the integrity of the program, combating abuse of it and ways to increase worker protections — including ways to allow workers to leave abusive employment without hurting their immigration status.
"The Department of Homeland Security is moving with unprecedented speed to meet the needs of American businesses," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "At a time of record job growth, this full year allocation at the very outset of the fiscal year will ensure that businesses can plan for their peak season labor needs. We also will bolster worker protections to safeguard the integrity of the program from unscrupulous employers who would seek to exploit the workers by paying substandard wages and maintaining unsafe work conditions."
The administration said it will assess policy options and will eventually propose rulemaking related to the H-2 programs more broadly.
But the announcement was not enough for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who, along with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has pushed for reform of the program. He said the announcement did not effectively address vulnerabilities in the program.
"In its current form, the H-2B program lacks the necessary controls to ensure fairness for workers, and it actually incentivizes lower wages and poor working conditions for American and immigrant guest workers alike," he said in a statement.
"As leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Durbin and I have repeatedly voiced our opposition to expanding this program without needed reforms, and we’ve worked in a bipartisan manner to strengthen the guest worker system," he said. "It’s time the administration takes action to ensure this program encourages fair and competitive opportunities for both Americans and guest workers."