The Trump administration announced 15,000 additional visas for businesses to hire temporary help from foreign workers this summer, splitting the difference between “America first” advocates and business groups, who’d begged for nearly five times that number.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made the announcement just ahead of the Memorial Day holiday that traditionally marks the beginning of the summer season, with landscaping, resort and seafood businesses begging for the foreign help.
But only companies that attest they would suffer a serious financial loss without the workers will be allowed to apply, according to a draft of the final policy, which will be issued jointly by Homeland Security and the Labor Department.
That’s designed to make sure companies are making every possible effort to hire Americans before they go looking abroad for temporary help.
It’s the same policy used last year, when then-Secretary John Kelly granted an additional 15,000 H-2B visas — and it will likely draw the same outcry from businesses who say it’s too high a bar to meet.
Homeland Security also blasted Congress for once again refusing to make the decisions itself and, just as it did with Mr. Kelly, forcing Homeland Security to calculate the right levels of immigration.
Congress has set the yearly limit on seasonal H2-B workers at 66,000, with half going to winter job openings and half to summer jobs.
The summer visas were scarfed up by the end of February, leaving many businesses complaining.
They’ve aimed those gripes at Congress, which has been unable to reach a conclusion and instead punted the issue back to Homeland Security, writing language into the annual spending bills telling the department it can add up to 69,000 visas for the summer season.
This year’s increase was included in the March “omnibus” spending bill that funded the government for fiscal year 2018. Once that passed, some lawmakers immediately began pestering Ms. Nielsen to quickly approve all 69,000 visas.
She pushed back, telling them if they wanted a specific outcome, they should have written it into law.
“We are once again in a situation where Congress has passed the buck and turned a decision over to DHS that would be better situated with Congress, who knows the needs of the program,” Ms. Nielsen said Friday.
The 15,000 number, she said, meets the actual contours of the labor shortage.
Summertime businesses have said they’ll have to shutter if they don’t get an influx of workers, particularly with the economy humming and unemployment rates already so low.
From crabmeat picking plants the the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia peninsula to amusement parks to lawn services, businesses say they’ve struggled to find Americans willing to work at the wages, hours and conditions they’re offering, and foreigners are the only solution.
Amusement parks, for example, say the high school and college schedules don’t match up very well with the summer work season. Landscapers say they have advertised far and wide, in English and Spanish, and can’t find workers. But analysts who want a stricter immigration policy counter with last year’s experience, when Mr. Kelly approved an added 15,000 summer H-2B visas. Only 12,294 of them were actually approved, suggesting that while businesses want additional foreign help, relatively few of them are able to attest that the workers are critical to their business’s survival.
Homeland Security, in its draft policy, warned of future audits to make sure businesses aren’t abusing the added visas — another factor that could tamp down on the number of visas actually issued.