Democratic Lawmaker Proposes Overhaul to Guest Worker Visa Program, Including Path to Citizenship

December 15, 2020 Updated: December 15, 2020

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) on Dec. 15 introduced a proposal that would make changes to the H-2B temporary guest worker visa program, including providing foreign workers with enhanced legal protections and offering them a path to citizenship.

Called the Seasonal Worker Solidarity Act (pdf), the measure seeks to remedy a number of issues with the H-2B program, which Castro said in a statement currently enable exploitation, discrimination, and displacement of both migrant and American workers.

“The current visa system for temporary workers is fundamentally flawed, enabling the abuse of hard-working families and failing to account for our economic needs,” said Castro, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.

One of the ways the bill addresses the exploitation of guest workers on H-2B visas, which apply to seasonal workers in nonagricultural jobs, is to allow a period of 60 days of unemployment so they can search for a different job, making their fate less dependent on a single employer. It also prohibits labor recruiters from charging workers high fees that lead to debt bondage and holds employers accountable for recruitment abuses.

If adopted, the legislation would impose fees on employers that would fund audits and enforcement by the Labor Department, while employers who commit labor abuses would be barred from the H-2B program entirely.

“My bill creates a new framework that protects worker’s rights by elevating labor standards and preventing discrimination, and also provides immigrant workers a path to citizenship,” Castro said.

The proposed legislation would provide a path to citizenship for workers after 18 months of H-2B employment and lets returning workers who have completed at least three years of H-2B work to gain lawful permanent resident status. It also seeks to address discrimination in hiring practices by establishing an H-2B Equal Opportunity Advocate position in the Labor Department that would “address issues of diversity.”

Castro’s bill would also engage unions in the search for available workers and prohibit unnecessary experience requirements and background checks that aren’t legally required for a given position.

The Seasonal Worker Solidarity Act is backed by a number of unions, immigrant advocacy groups, and is co-sponsored by a half dozen Democrat lawmakers.

The bill would require enhanced nationwide recruitment of U.S.-based workers in a bid to address the problem of H-2B employers intentionally bypassing available U.S. workers for seasonal jobs. It would also allocate visas to employers who pay the highest wages and treat workers well, in an effort to prevent employers from underpaying H-2B workers and undercutting local workers and competitors.

The Trump administration in April suspended the issuance of additional H-2B seasonal guest worker visas, arguing that American workers should be prioritized amid the pandemic-related economic downturn. President Donald Trump, in the Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak, wrote, “In the administration of our nation’s immigration system, we must be mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in an environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor.”

The Department of Homeland Security announced in November that the H-2B visa cap of 33,000 has been reached for the first half of fiscal year 2021, noting that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would reject applications as of Nov. 16 for positions that start before April 1, 2021.

Currently, Congress has set the H-2B cap at 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 for workers who begin employment in the first half of the fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, and another 33,000 for those who start work in the second half of the fiscal year, which spans April 1 to Sept. 30, 2021.

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