Politics & Government

Trump says Democrats are blocking his nominees, but the GOP’s Tillis is holding up this one

Ruben Lugo from Mexico mows grass on the grounds of the DeVintage subdivision in Cary, NC on April 19, 2017. He is here on an H2B visa, which is for seasonal work. He works for Greenscape, Inc., a Raleigh landscaping company. N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the program.
Ruben Lugo from Mexico mows grass on the grounds of the DeVintage subdivision in Cary, NC on April 19, 2017. He is here on an H2B visa, which is for seasonal work. He works for Greenscape, Inc., a Raleigh landscaping company. N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the program. cseward@newsobserver.com

President Donald Trump has accused U.S. Senate Democrats numerous times of delaying his nominees to fill the executive branch. But in the case of one Department of Homeland Security nominee, it is Republican Sen. Thom Tillis who is holding up the process.

Tillis, who represents North Carolina, placed a hold on Lee Francis Cissna’s nomination to be director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – a department within Homeland Security whose 19,000 employees and contractors deals with naturalization, green cards, visas for temporary workers and the e-verify program that checks job applicants for legal residency in the country.

Senate custom allows a single senator to block legislation or presidential nominations through the use of a hold. The Washington Times first reported Tillis’ hold.

Tillis took the action to pressure Homeland Security to speed up a decision on making available more H-2B visas – a program that allows American businesses to hire seasonal foreign workers for non-agricultural jobs.

The program is used heavily by North Carolina’s tourism, landscaping and seafood production industries. Only Texas and Colorado had more workers on H-2B visas in fiscal year 2017 than North Carolina’s 4,324.

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In May, Congress authorized Homeland Security to approve an additional 70,000 H-2B visas as part of a government funding law. Those additional visas are on top of the current cap of 66,000. But there are tighter restrictions this year as returning workers count against the cap unlike in previous years, and Tillis said the cap was reached on March 13.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has yet to make a final decision on the additional visas, drawing the ire of Tillis. Several North Carolina businesses have been affected by the shortage of workers.

“Several senators, including Sen. Tillis, have concerns with DHS’ timeline because it would negatively impact North Carolina seasonal small businesses and workers this summer. The hold is in place while these concerns are being addressed with DHS,” Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said.

Thom Tillis, then a North Carolina Republican Senate candidate, debates then-Sen. Kay Hagan at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., on Oct. 7, 2014. Gerry Broome AP

A DHS spokesman said the blame lies with Congress for passing the law in May, rather than September or October, which would allow more time to find seasonal summer workers. Congress also required that Kelly consult with the Department of Labor before making his decision.

“Francis Cissna is well-respected and highly qualified and Secretary Kelly looks forward to a confirmation vote by the Senate as soon as possible. Mr. Cissna received overwhelming support from the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said David Lapan, a press secretary for Homeland Security.

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The issue is further complicated by the politics surrounding the use of foreign workers by American businesses, particularly after Trump made it an issue in the presidential campaign.

Though Trump said he has relied on the program to find workers for his golf courses and hotels, he campaigned on an “America First” platform. Some on the right and left have seized on the issue as one of fairness for American workers.

Four senators, including two Republicans and two Democrats, wrote a letter to Kelly and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta in May urging caution in adding H-2B visas and requesting that Kelly inform the Senate Judiciary Committee in a written report how he reaches any determination to add more. The letter was signed by three members of the Judiciary Committee, including chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

Tillis also serves on that committee.

Tillis teamed up with 87 members of both parties in the House and Senate to write a May letter to Kelly and Acosta encouraging them “to take swift and decisive action to ensure that small and seasonal businesses in our states can get the workers necessary to ensure a successful season.”

Though Democrats can stall nominees with procedural delays, Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate, allowing them to confirm Trump’s nominees without any support from Democrats.

The Senate has confirmed 47 of Trump’s 139 formal nominees, according to The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. But there are more than 370 key positions that require Senate confirmation for which Trump has not nominated anyone.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office said it does not disclose the number of nominees subject to holds.

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089; @MurphinDC