Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf said Tuesday that no decision has yet been made on whether to raise the H-2B visa cap for seasonal guest workers, calling on Congress to act instead — and promising that any cap hike would be accompanied by measures to tackle waste and abuse in the system.
“I will say, as of right now, no decision has been made about the supplemental H-2B cap increase,” Wolf told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I again would urge Congress, you are in the best position to identify how many visas that program needs.”
The H-2B visa program gives temporary legal status to non-agricultural seasonal workers in areas such as landscaping and service-industry jobs in restaurants and hotels. The vast majority of the visas go to Mexican workers. The number of such visas in a single year is capped by Congress at 66,000, but the Trump administration has raised that cap significantly each year. Last year it was increased by an additional 30,000 workers, and Congress has given DHS and the Department of Labor the authority to raise that cap by 64,000 visas a year.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Trump administration plans to greenlight 45,000 additional seasonal workers in two waves. The first 20,000 visas would be immediately available, and the second from June onward.
It’s a move that would anger immigration hawks, including many among President Trump’s base, who supported him in part because he promised to change what they see as the use of temporary worker programs to undermine American workers and keep wages flat.
“This should be an easy decision for the Trump administration — help American workers and those on the sidelines, not cheap labor dependent employers who despise a tight labor market,” RJ Hauman, head of government relations for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told Fox News.
On the Hill, raising the cap sees both bipartisan support and opposition. Both Republicans and Democrats have sent letters to the administration on both sides of the issue.
“While we understand the needs of employers who legitimately rely on seasonal H-2B workers if American workers cannot meet the demand, we continue to have concerns about the harmful impact that the program has on both American workers and foreign guest workers,” a letter signed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., Tom Cotton. R-Ark., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said.
On Tuesday, as Wolf testified, he was urged by both Republicans and Democrats to up the cap.
“I’ve got a whole bunch of small businesses in New Hampshire who aren’t going to be able to do their business this summer if they don’t have those workers,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said.
“If that stretches out into June or July before those actual releases come that’s too late for the season and so trying to be able to get those done faster is better than slowly trying to be able to piece those out,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said.
But Wolf told lawmakers that if DHS did raise the cap, it would be accompanied by efforts to crack down on abuse and fraud.
“What I will say, it’s not only a number, it’s also looking at the fraud and abuse in the program which the Department of Homeland Security is certainly concerned about, so if we do reach out and increase, you’ll also see a number of provisions there that get to the waste abuse and fraud that I believe members of Congress on a bipartisan basis have expressed concern with,” he said.
He told lawmakers that he had spoken to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia about six times in recent weeks about the issue and that they are looking to have an announcement relatively soon so the industries know how many visas they have to work with.