Does Trump really believe U.S. companies should “Hire American?” Not if he allows Congress to expand the H-2B guestworker program.
On Monday morning, members of Congress in the House and Senate made public the text of omnibus appropriations legislation to fund the U.S. government through September 2017. The legislation includes a “rider” provision that will double the size of the H-2B nonimmigrant visa program, a temporary foreign worker (or “guestworker”) program that brings up to 66,000 migrant workers per year to the United States for up to nine months at a time to perform low-wage seasonal jobs in industries like landscaping, forestry, housekeeping, seafood processing, and construction. The fact that the legislation was unveiled on May Day makes it sadly ironic, because if President Trump signs it without pressuring congressional leaders to remove this H-2B rider, it will become the latest example of Trump’s aggressive anti-worker agenda. There is still a chance that the final version of the bill might not include it, but it’s a longshot unless Trump demands that Republican leaders in Congress take it out.
H-2B visas are sponsored—in other words owned and controlled—by the employers who hire H-2B workers. In practice that means H-2B guestworkers cannot switch employers if they are cheated or abused. For H-2B workers, losing their visa makes them instantly deportable, which is why they often work for low wages in poor conditions without complaining. In addition, EPI research has shown how H-2B wage rules have often allowed H-2B workers to be paid less than local average wage rates for similarly situated U.S. workers, and how H-2B workers earn no more than undocumented workers on average. Moreover, there are numerous cases of litigation, reports in the media, and government audits documenting how migrants employed through the H-2B program are often exploited and robbed by employers, and even are victims of human trafficking. Because U.S. workers are forced to compete with vulnerable H-2B workers, in turn, this degrades wages and working conditions for all workers in major H-2B occupations. Thus, there’s no question that the H-2B program needs major reforms to protect migrant and American workers—but any push to expand H-2B should be made through the regular legislative process and after a full debate in Congress, so that members are accountable for their votes—not as a fly-by-night provision on a must-pass spending bill.
There were approximately 136,000 H-2B workers present in the United States in 2016, and that number would increase rapidly if the omnibus appropriations bill is signed as currently drafted. The omnibus contains additional H-2B riders that would extend a number of provisions from last year’s appropriations bill that prohibit funds from being used by the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce key protections for both American and migrant workers—rules that help ensure both are paid fairly and that seek to prevent blatant discrimination by H-2B employers against either. Last year I explained in detail the substance and impact of these corporate giveaways at the expense of the wages of low-wage workers. It is scandalous that Congress proposes to allow them to continue.
The abuses H-2B workers suffer and the substandard pay they receive—which in practice they have no power to increase because of their precarious immigration status—are partly why the New York Times took a strong stance against expanding and deregulating the H-2B program through appropriations legislation last year. The Times asked and answered its own question about why Congress would ever do such a thing:
Why would Congress expand the H-2B system? Because businesses that profit from cheap and subservient labor are demanding that it do so. Employers are supposed to recruit American workers before they hire H-2B workers. They are also supposed to pay guest workers the prevailing wage Americans would earn. Legal loopholes and lax enforcement have allowed them to sidestep those rules.
The main justification cited by employers and corporate lobby groups for expanding H-2B is that there are national-level labor shortages in H-2B jobs. However, no credible evidence to support this claim has been presented. In fact, the opposite is true: An EPI review of the latest Current Population Survey data reveals that the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2017 for landscaping was 8.6 percent, 10 percent in construction, and 11.3 percent for farming, fishing, and forestry occupations—all much higher than the national unemployment rate of 4.5 percent. A historical look at the data tells the same story: For the past decade at least, wages have been flat and unemployment rates have been sky-high in H-2B occupations.
In addition to continuing this trend for the foreseeable future for landscapers, construction workers, and many other low-wage workers if Trump signs the fiscal 2017 appropriations bill without objecting to the H-2B riders, it will fly in the face of everything the president has said about protecting American jobs and American workers. It wasn’t even a month ago that President Trump signed an Executive Order that he sold to the public as a tool that will encourage more U.S. companies to “hire American.” The H-2B riders in the fiscal 2017 appropriations legislation will do exactly the opposite: give employers incentives to hire indentured and underpaid workers from abroad who have no power in the workplace, and who have no hope of a path to permanent residence and citizenship.
We have already seen the Trump administration’s despicable criminalization and scapegoating of immigrants and immigrant workers—even deporting victims of crime who seek relief in courthouses across the country—but allowing Congress to pass appropriations legislation that deregulates and expands the H-2B guestworker program would make it clear that Trump doesn’t care about American workers either, only CEOs and their bottom lines.