The White House complained Monday about Democratic obstruction of President Trump’s nominees, but a Republican senator is the chief roadblock for Mr. Trump’s pick to head the legal immigration service, hoping to use the position as leverage to force the administration to approve more foreign guest-workers this year.
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina has put a “hold” on Lee Francis Cissna, the nominee for director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to try to pressure Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to bend to the senator’s will and quickly approve thousands of H-2B visas.
Mr. Tillis is one of a number of senators who say their states’ summertime resort, seafood and landscaping industries are struggling to find American workers and need the foreign labor to survive.
“Several senators, including Sen. Tillis, have concerns with DHS’ timeline because it would negatively impact seasonal small businesses and American workers across the nation this summer,” said Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for the senator, in explaining his blockade. “The hold is in place while these concerns are being addressed with DHS.”
The H-2B visas have become an early test for Mr. Trump, who ran on a platform of boosting U.S. workers over foreigners, but who now faces pressure from within his own party and from key business groups.
H-2B visas are supposed to be for seasonal nonagricultural work, and current law sets an annual cap of 66,000, with half awarded for winter industries and half for summer jobs. Congress often increases the cap but this year did something unusual: Lawmakers in May gave Mr. Kelly the power to make the decision, allowing him to add perhaps 70,000 more visas for the summertime season.
The former Marine general said he was inundated with lawmakers from both sides of the issue and that he wished Congress had decided. In lieu of that, he worked with the Labor Department to study industry needs. He has promised a decision this month.
In late June, David Lapan, a spokesman for Mr. Kelly, said the secretary decided he would offer some additional visas, though the timing and number were still being worked out.
Mr. Lapan said this week that the secretary’s stance remained. “We’ll know soon on timing,” Mr. Lapan said.
The spokesman did not comment on the hold of Mr. Cissna, the official who would oversee the H-2B program as well as the rest of the legal immigration and guest-worker system.
Rosemary Jenks, government relations director at Numbers USA, which lobbies for stricter immigration limits, said Mr. Tillis’ hold was a slap at Mr. Trump’s agenda.
“President Trump won the election on a message of ending the practice of using immigration to harm American workers. I find it amazing that a few short months later, a United States senator — a Republican no less — is preventing a vote on a presidential appointee in order to extort extra visas for low-skilled foreign workers on behalf of the cheap labor lobby,” she said. “Sen. Tillis should be ashamed.”
Landscaping and resort advocates have been particularly vocal in demanding more workers, saying they are losing business because they have tried but failed to find Americans willing to work the jobs. They also say they are bound by law to pay the prevailing wage, so they don’t end up shortchanging any workers.
The businesses say it’s late in the season, and they fear the workers won’t clear the process in time even if Mr. Kelly approves the visas.
That’s a concern Mr. Tillis has expressed, demanding “swift and decisive action” from Mr. Kelly.
North Carolina, Mr. Tillis’ home state, is among the top 10 states for H-2B workers, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, which is releasing a report Tuesday on the program.
The center argues that the jobs generally pay better than minimum wage and there should be Americans willing to take them — particularly if the businesses are willing to change a bit.
“These are jobs that used to be held by college students. I certainly did it when I was in college,” said Jessica Vaughan, the report’s author. “But they’ve gotten away from that because it’s just easier — they don’t have to recruit people, they don’t have to accommodate the schedules of students.”
She said the program has been taken over by middleman recruiters who sign up foreigners, then connect them with the seasonal businesses in the U.S., who bank on the foreign hires for their business models.
Ms. Vaughan pointed to the experience of some Maine businesses that used to rely on H-2B. She said when the supply dried up, the businesses started to recruit senior citizens instead, working with them to accommodate their desire for part-time jobs.
But for many companies, the current system is too enticing.
“What we find is that some of the senators who represent states where employers really want these workers are some of the biggest proponents of this program,” she said. “It certainly appears that senators are very susceptible to pressure from the employers who want to bring in these workers instead of hire American workers, even though these are clearly jobs that Americans are available for and are decent-paying jobs.”
The White House complained Monday about the hold on Mr. Cissna as part of an overall broadside against the Senate for obstructing most of Mr. Trump’s nominees.
The practice of “holds” is a tactic based on Senate rules that allows a single lawmaker to delay action. It’s a signal that a member intends to object to bringing a bill or nominee to the floor for a vote. It’s a rough equivalent to a filibuster, requiring a delay and a cloture vote to overcome.
Senators sometimes use holds to block a specific person they object to, but just as often they use holds to extract concessions from the administration. Sometimes it’s to force top officials to answer questions they might otherwise avoid or, as in Mr. Tillis’ case, to force a policy change.
The nominee in those cases ends up being an innocent bystander hostage.
Mr. Cissna is currently director of immigration policy at Homeland Security. Some immigrant rights groups have opposed his nomination, but he cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a strong bipartisan vote with just two Democrats opposing him.
Still, Democrats have their own hold on his nomination, as they do on every pick to emerge from the Judiciary Committee — part of an overall floor slowdown to protest Republicans’ handling of the Obamacare repeal debate.