Businesses beg for more low-skill visas

Demand for low-skilled worker visas for the summer season that just started is again far outstripping supply, with the Trump administration forced to choose between helping businesses seeking more visas or trying to save those jobs for American workers.

Some lawmakers tried and failed this month to secure an increase in the number of H-2B visas available for this summer as part of a large spending bill. One Senate proposal would have permanently raised the annual cap from 66,000 to 90,000, with no limits for certain jobs in areas affected by disasters. A House version would have increased the annual cap to 132,000.

The White House warned some lawmakers not to kick the decision to the Department of Homeland Security as they did in 2017, congressional aides said. “We did not want the discretion,” an administration official said.

Nonetheless, DHS is now under pressure from the business community to provide more visas after the spending bill authorized the department’s Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to offer tens of thousands of extra visas if she sees fit.

A DHS spokeswoman, Katie Waldman, said no decision has been made. “We are currently looking at last year’s implementation of the H-2B plus-up to determine how best to proceed this fiscal year,” she said.

The H-2B visas, issued for low-skilled, seasonal foreign workers, are typically employed by landscaping companies, Alaskan fisheries, ski resorts and vacation spots, including some of President Donald Trump’s properties.

Backers say the program provides needed foreign workers, often in remote locations where Americans are scarce. They say the problem is particularly acute given the current unemployment rate of 4.1%, the lowest in a decade.

“We rebranded 8,000 vehicles and put ‘now hiring’ on everything we own. We cannot get enough workers,” said Todd Chambers, chief marketing officer for BrightView Landscapes, LLC, a large landscaping company that has used H-2B workers for more than a decade.

Opponents say businesses should try harder and raise wages if needed. “We should want the labor market to tighten and employers have to work overtime trying to entice American workers, especially those who’ve dropped out of the labor market,” said Mark Krikorian of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.

Ultimately, Democratic leaders killed the proposals to increase the visas, congressional aides in both parties said. Democratic aides said that was partly because they weren’t willing to import more foreign workers at a time when Congress was failing to protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers.

By statute, a total of 66,000 H-2B visas are available each year, divided evenly between winter and summer seasons. In past years, Congress has effectively raised the cap by exempting workers who are returning to jobs they had in previous seasons, but didn’t do so last year nor this year.

For this summer season, businesses filed requests for more than 81,000 workers with the Labor Department on Jan. 1, the first day possible, a record, and more since then. Many firms tried to file applications after midnight on New Year’s Eve to be near the front of the line.

This year, for the first time, DHS conducted a lottery among early applicants to pick winners, saying it was only fair given the crush of demand. Administration officials said that applications cleared by the Labor Department by mid-February were eligible. But several people who use the program said they were confused about why some petitions were included in the draw and others weren’t.

BrightView Landscapes filed 94 petitions requesting a total of 3,500 visas, but was awarded fewer than 500, compared with 1,600 last year, said Sarah Powenski, vice president and associate general counsel at the company.

Company officials say they are frustrated that the program has been caught up in the larger immigration debate. “This thing has become more of an immigration issue in people’s minds,” said Mr. Chambers. “It’s been attached to a third-rail issue.”

Faced with the same situation last year, John Kelly, then DHS secretary and now White House chief of staff, fumed. He argued that if Congress wanted more visas, then lawmakers should have approved them.

Many lawmakers lobbied him to approve additional visas. His boss, President Donald Trump, ran for office promising to protect American workers against foreign competition, and White House officials pressured him against it, according to people familiar with the decision making.

Ultimately, Mr. Kelly allowed up to 15,000 additional visas for guest workers, though not until the summer was half over. He set a high bar for businesses that wanted to apply and described the approval as a “one-time” move. – By Laura Meckler