Trump Administration to Issue Additional 35,000 H-2B Visas for Temporary Workers

March 6, 2020 Updated: March 6, 2020
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The Trump administration will make available an additional 35,000 seasonal guest-worker visas this year for foreign workers who wish to work in the United States temporarily under the H-2B program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced March 5.

The seasonal-worker visa program, formally known as H-2B, allows U.S. employers to hire temporary non-farm workers for jobs that they say Americans won’t do. Included are jobs in landscaping, construction, hotels, and restaurants, seafood and meat processing plants, and amusement parks.

Business groups and members of Congress have argued that there are not enough Americans to fill many service-sector and food-processing jobs across the country.

“This year’s supplemental allocation was determined after extensive consultation with stakeholders—including members of Congress and the Department of Labor—and is intended to strike a careful balance that benefits American businesses and American workers,” the DHS said in a statement.

The cap placed on the number of H-2B visas allowed per fiscal year currently stands at 66,000—evenly split between the winter and summer seasons. However, U.S. law allows the administration to set a “supplemental” allocation by up to 64,000 additional visas if needed.

The 35,000 additional visas to be made available this year surpasses the 30,000 allowed last year, and is the highest under President Donald Trump, who has made restricting illegal immigration a centerpiece of his administration. He has said the United States needs temporary foreign workers because of demand in the labor market.

Of the additional H-2B visas to be made available this year, 10,000 will be set aside for people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The DHS made that decision because those countries agreed to help the administration ease pressure on the southern border by taking in people seeking U.S. asylum.

The department said in its announcement that it will take “significant steps” to combat fraud and abuse in the H-2B program and will generally limit the visas to returning workers “… who are known to follow immigration law in good faith.”

“DHS is committed to ensuring that our immigration system is implemented lawfully and that American workers are protected,” it said.

The additional visas will be made available in two batches. The department said 20,000 are for start dates beginning April 1 and 15,000 for start dates starting May 15. This measure will “prevent a small handful of employers from using all the visas,” it said.

The H-2B visa program has generated debate in Congress, with two bipartisan groups sending letters to Homeland Security, one urging an increase in the number of temporary visas and one expressing concern over a possible increase.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), said in a letter (pdf) in January that the “realities” of the H-2B program “… incentivize unscrupulous employers to hire H-2B workers instead of American workers and create poor working conditions for immigrant workers and American workers alike.”

“Therefore, absent significant regulatory and legislative reforms to the program, we do not believe that an increase in the number of H-2B visas is in the interests of either American workers or H-2B visa holders,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, lawmakers urged DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf to increase the cap.

The DHS said it would publish further details regarding this year’s H-2B allocation as soon as possible.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.