The Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday that it would raise the visa cap for H-2B seasonal guest workers by 35,000 for the current fiscal year, an increase that would be tied to various anti-fraud measures.
About 10,000 of the new visa slots will be designated for nationals from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, since these countries have worked “to stem the flow of illegal migration in the region and encourage lawful migration to the United States,” DHS said in a statement.
The visa program allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers to fill nonagricultural jobs, such as seasonal work in the hospitality, seafood and landscaping industries. The companies are allowed to hire people through the program if they can prove they first tried to hire U.S. residents.
“DHS is committed to ensuring that our immigration system is implemented lawfully and that American workers are protected,” it said in a statement.
The current number of H-2B visas allowed each year is 66,000, a figure capped by Congress.
DHS said it will issue its supplemental visas in two batches. The first 20,000 visas will be allocated for work start dates beginning April 1. The remaining 15,000 visas will be allocated for May 15.
Along with raising the cap, DHS will implement measures to combat fraud in the program, such as limiting the additional visas to returning workers who have followed the law previously and site visits by DHS and Department of Labor officials who will look for potential abuse.
While congressional lawmakers from both parties have been eager for DHS to release additional visa slots, some raised concerns about whether the increase will hurt U.S. employees.
“Raising the limit of H-2B visas means prioritizing cheap foreign labor over paying better wages for American workers to do the same jobs,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a statement. “Congress needs to seriously reform the H-2B visa program so it supports wage growth and employment for Americans instead of encouraging a race to the bottom by importing too much low-cost labor.”
Cotton and other lawmakers penned a bipartisan letter in January to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, urging them against increasing the H-2B visa cap without first making significant changes to eliminate waste and abuse in the program.
Other Republicans, particularly those with a large number of constituents who work in seasonal industries, applauded the administration’s decision to raise the cap. Democratic Rep. Andy Harris, whose Maryland district relies on seasonal crabbing, has been a staunch supporter of increasing H-2B allocations.
“I remain committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to pass a permanent solution to the chronic H-2B visa shortage across this country — something that only Congress can do,” Harris said in a statement.
This is not the first time DHS has provided additional H-2B visas to extend the cap’s reach. Last April, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta authorized the approval of an additional 30,000 visas for fiscal 2019.