Congress

Tillis’ push for more seasonal foreign workers lands in spending deal, angering immigration critics

Tillis wants to expand H2B visa program

Video: N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the H2B visa program, which allows workers from other countries into the U.S. to do seasonal work. Landscaping companies like Greenscapes, Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. use some of the workers on their jobs.
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Video: N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the H2B visa program, which allows workers from other countries into the U.S. to do seasonal work. Landscaping companies like Greenscapes, Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. use some of the workers on their jobs.

Congress opened the door for more temporary, seasonal foreign workers into the country this summer, even as lawmakers skirted around larger immigration issues such as border wall funding and undocumented child immigrants in its $1.3-trillion spending package.

A provision pushed by North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis to raise a cap on visas for those workers made its way into the must-pass spending package that was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Friday.

Tillis, a first-term Republican, is a longtime proponent of the H-2B visas program that allows businesses to hire foreign workers for seasonal work if there are not American workers who are willing, qualified, and able to perform temporary non-agricultural labor. His stance has often drawn the ire of immigration critics on the right — and this time is no different.

“It’s important to me because it’s important to thousands of American businesses,” Tillis said Wednesday.

Video: N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis wants to expand the H2B visa program, which allows workers from other countries into the U.S. to do seasonal work. Landscaping companies like Greenscapes, Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. use some of the workers on their jobs.

One paragraph in the the 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion federal spending bill released Wednesday night — and voted on quickly by the House and Senate — allows the Department of Homeland Security to raise the 66,000 cap on H-2B visas for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The bill, has opposition from many conservatives. North Carolina Republican Reps. George Holding of Raleigh, David Rouzer of Johnston County, Mark Walker of Greensboro, Mark Meadows of Asheville and Ted Budd of Davie County voted no. Tillis also voted no.

The bill provides $1.6 billion for border security, far less than the $25 billion that Trump wanted for his promised southern border wall, and does not address the DACA population at all. Trump threatened to veto the bill Friday morning, but signed it.

“It is disappointing to see congressional leadership and the business lobby once again use a must-pass spending bill to expand their access to cheap foreign labor. Opening the door for a significant increase in guest workers is not only unwarranted, but harmful to the interests of American workers,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Many seasonal small businesses in North Carolina and the country rely on workers from the program to keep their doors open and support American workers, a Tillis spokesman said. As of March 2017, North Carolina ranked third behind Texas and Colorado with 4,324 H-2B visa workers.

“That’s why Sen. Tillis has been leading bipartisan efforts to reform and improve the H-2B program since he arrived in the Senate, including attempts to secure provisions in funding bills,” said Daniel Keylin, a Tillis spokesman.

In July, Tillis placed a hold on President Donald Trump’s nominee for the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a department within Homeland Security to force a decision on adding more visas. A week later, Homeland Security increased the H-2B visa cap by 15,000 for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year. DHS called it a “one-time” increase.

The provision in the spending package allows DHS — after consultation with the Department of Labor and confirmation that the needs of businesses cannot be met by American workers — to up the cap again this year.

“When then-DHS Secretary (John) Kelly increased H-2B visas last year based on the same statutory authority, he called the decision a ‘one-time increase.’ That should make this an easy decision for Secretary (Kirstjen) Nielsen, who worked for Kelly at the time,” Hauman said.

Several North Carolina industries, including seafood and landscaping, say they have experienced a shortage in workers. Previously, returning workers did not count against the 66,000 cap — 33,000 for winter and 33,000 for summer — but the returning worker exemption expired in 2016.

Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for NumbersUSA a group that supports lower immigration totals, said the program is filled with “fraud and abuse” and that it harms American workers.

“According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers in the industries that most rely on the H-2B program haven’t seen a wage increase in more than a decade, dispelling the myth of a worker shortage,” Chmielenski said. “Instead of pushing for more foreign workers, Congress should find ways to help the millions of lower-skilled, working-age Americans who suffered the most during the recent recession get back to work.”

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC

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