The Trump administration is likely to expand a controversial guest-worker program, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told Congress on Thursday, in a move that’s bound to anger some of the president’s staunchest supporters.
Congress earlier this month gave Mr. Kelly the power to more than double the number of H-2B visas issued this fiscal year from 66,000 to more than 135,000.
In the weeks since, Mr. Kelly said, he’s been swamped with lawmakers lobbying him on both sides of the issue, with some saying businesses in their states and districts are desperate for the foreign help, and others pleading with the secretary to protect American workers by not approving the increase.
“This is one of those things I wish I didn’t have discretion,” Mr. Kelly told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
H-2B visas are aimed at seasonal non-agricultural workers, and are generally good for up to a year. The visas are sought by summer and winter resorts, as well as other seasonal businesses — from Maryland’s crab-picking plants to Alaska’s seafood processing industry.
President Trump during his campaign promised to protect American workers from foreign competition, which draws a lot of attention to his administration’s decision to expand the H-2B visa program.
“We’ll likely increase the numbers for this year, perhaps not by the entire number I’m authorized,” Mr. Kelly said Thursday, tipping his hand somewhat.
He said he’s working with the Labor Department to try to figure out what, exactly, to do.
Businesses who said they rely on foreign labor pleaded with Homeland Security to go big and to act quickly. On a conference call with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Thursday, a number of landscaping businesses said they will have to leave lawns unmowed and beautification projects undone.
“At this point right now, because we have no workers, we are turning down work, we are returning deposits and we are cutting business in half,” said one woman from a landscaping company in New Jersey.
Advocates for U.S. workers, though, said there’s no need to look outside the country to fill jobs, particularly since the 66,000 level was in place last year and businesses survived.
“If your business model is based on recruiting foreign workers above the level authorized in regular law, you probably should rethink your business model,” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA.
The divisions over the issue are deep in Congress.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, urged Mr. Kelly to move quickly, saying that the seafood processing operations in her state need to make decisions over the next few weeks about summer hiring.
“The salmon don’t care when the permits are issued,” she said.
But Mr. Kelly said he’s hearing from the other side as well.
“For every senator or congressman who has your view, I have another who says ‘Don’t you dare, this is about American jobs,’” the secretary said.
He disclosed his own personal feeling as well, pointing back to his “working-class root background” he said reminds him that some of the workers being brought in under these visas are being used to undercut wages.
He pleaded with Congress to come up with a longer-term solution to the issue.
But that will be tough, given the divisions that plague the H-2B program and much of the rest of the immigration debate.