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Congress and Trump Discover Bipartisanship on Immigration—But Only to Increase H-2B Visas for Captive and Underpaid Migrant Workers

Migrant workers make important contributions to the U.S. economy, and it should go without saying that they deserve equal rights, fair pay, protections from retaliation, and a path to permanent residence and citizenship. Sadly, the H-2B program does not meet any of these standards.

Rodolfo Godinez, from left, Alfredo Rosas Mendoza and Samuel Jimenez, who are all working in the U.S. on H-2B visas, haul gravel July 20, 2017, for Jimenez & Sons Landscaping at a project at a home in Lemont. (Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Instead of taking action together to enact legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the unauthorized immigrants who are in danger of losing their immigration protections and work authorization as a result of President Trump’s efforts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status, Congress and the Trump administration have collaborated to increase in the size of the main temporary work visa program that U.S. employers use to fill low-wage non-agricultural jobs: the H-2B visa.

This year, employers and corporate lobbyists claimed—as they do every year—that 66,000 low-wage work visas were not enough to fulfill their demand for cheap, captive labor in the landscaping, construction, forestry, seafood, meat processing, traveling carnival, and hospitality industries. Members of Congress acquiesced to their demands by inserting language into the appropriations legislation that is now funding the government during fiscal year 2019, that gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to temporarily increase the annual limit of 66,000 visas by up to 69,000 additional visas. DHS ultimately decided last week to increase the H-2B annual limit by 30,000 visas, taking the total H-2B “cap” for 2019 to 96,000.

Migrant workers make important contributions to the U.S. economy, and it should go without saying that they deserve equal rights, fair pay, protections from retaliation, and a path to permanent residence and citizenship. Sadly, the H-2B program does not meet any of these standards. Instead, the H-2B program—like other U.S. temporary work visas programs—empowers employers to legally exert an unusual amount of control over migrant workers, who often arrive indebted to the labor recruiters who connect them to jobs in the United States. H-2B workers are in effect, captive, because their visa status is controlled by their employer—which means that if an H-2B worker isn’t paid the wage he or she was promised, or is forced to work in an unsafe workplace—the worker has little incentive to speak up or complain to the authorities. Complaining can result in getting fired, which leads to becoming undocumented and possibly deported. It also means not being able to earn back the money that was invested in order to get the job.

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These problems, which are inherent in the H-2B program, are well-documented. There are numerous cases of litigationmedia reports, government audits, and studies revealing how migrants employed through the H-2B program arrive in the United States with massive debt, are often exploited and robbed by employers, and even become victims of human trafficking. While these most-egregious examples are clear legal violations, much of the abuse and discrimination in the H-2B program is perfectly legal. First, employers control the workers’ immigration status. And second, employers have been allowed to underpay H-2B workers for years thanks to the way the H-2B wage rules work, which have included policy changes made through appropriations riders that have weakened the already-inadequate wage rules and de-funded enforcement. Since U.S. workers are forced to compete with vulnerable and underpaid H-2B workers, wages and working conditions for all workers in major H-2B occupations are degraded. As a result, there’s no question that the H-2B program needs major reforms to protect both migrant and American workers.

Table 1 below illustrates how the H-2B program allows employers to undercut U.S. wage standards. Table 1 shows the top 20 H-2B occupations in fiscal2017 by Standard Occupational Classification code, according to H-2B jobs certified by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), and the nationwide average hourly wage for all certified H-2B workers in each of the occupations. The 2017 average hourly wage rates for all workers in the occupation nationwide, according to the DOL’s Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey—which is used to set H-2B wage rates, making it an apples-to-apples comparison—is listed next to the H-2B wage. The final column shows the difference between the average hourly certified H-2B wage and the average hourly OES wage for the entire country; this is what employers save, on average, by hiring an H-2B worker instead of a worker who is paid the national average wage for the occupation.

Daniel Costa

Daniel Costa is Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

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