The coronavirus has left potentially millions of workers idle and forced travel restrictions, but Homeland Security says it’s still pushing ahead with plans to import tens of thousands of foreign guest workers to fill seasonal jobs, The Washington Times has learned.
The move is drawing fire from advocates who say increasing H-2B visas right now is wildly insensitive, and out-of-work Americans will be able to fill the slots.
Homeland Security announced the 35,000-visa increase at the beginning of this month, before the coronavirus crisis had fully taken hold. But as of Wednesday there were no plans to reverse course, a spokesman said.
“No changes at this time,” the department told The Times.
It was a dissonant note on a day when the U.S. and Canada announced they would impose a partial border shutdown, cutting off crossings but for cases of legitimate trade.
Meanwhile the Trump administration is also considering a new policy at the southwestern border that would automatically push asylum-seekers and other migrants back across the line, rather than admitting them and giving them a chance to fight their deportations.
Those are in addition to travel restrictions on people from China and Europe, where COVID-19 is entrenched.
Canada and Mexico are among the most prominent users of H-2B visas to enter the U.S., and both are seeing coronavirus spread this week, with Canada reporting 569 cases as of Wednesday evening, up about 150 in one day. Mexico reported 93, up 40 from Tuesday.
Jamaica, Guatemala and South Africa, which round out the top five H-2B countries, all report growing numbers of cases as well.
“When American workers are being laid off on droves because of small businesses closing, and basically the countries H-2Bs would be coming from have coronavirus, is it really the time?” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president of NumbersUSA, which advocates for American workers.
The 35,000-visa increase is discretionary.
Under the law, H-2B visas are capped at 66,000 each year, with an additional amount allowed for some returning workers. Congress over the last few years has written legislation allowing the Homeland Security secretary to increase the cap to about double the amount written into the law.
Acting Secretary Chad Wolf announced the 35,000-visa figure on March 5, bowing to pressure from members of Congress who’d demanded he act quickly.
One was Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, who confronted Mr. Wolf at a hearing in late February.
“Making those new visas available is very important,” she lectured the secretary. “I’ve got a bunch of small businesses in New Hampshire who aren’t going to be able to do their business this summer if they don’t have those workers.”
Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment this week about whether she’s changed her mind amid the coronavirus crisis.
Summertime H-2B visas are scarfed up by beach resorts, amusement parks and landscaping businesses.
Gray Delany, executive director of the Seasonal Employment Alliance, which advocates for the H-2B program, said some of those industries are suffering in the coronavirus economy. Carnivals and fairs have been canceled through Memorial Day and the hospitality industry is beset with cancellations.
But he said landscapers will still need people.
“The grass has not stopped growing,” he said.
“Seasonal employers who still need workers are committed to hiring any and all Americans whose job status has been negatively impacted by the coronavirus,” Mr. Delany said.
One complication to the H-2B decision is that the U.S. promised 10,000 of the visas to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as a reward for their efforts in helping stem last year’s border surge.
But Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said Guatemala has announced that thanks to coronavirus it will no longer abide by part of the deal. She said that gives the U.S. a reason not to follow through on the visas.
Ms. Vaughan said there’s a good case to be made for suspending almost all guest-worker admissions amid the virus.
“Besides helping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, shutting off the flow of visa workers will help get more Americans back to work,” she said. “This is an opportunity to see just how essential to our economy these visas really are.”
Any change, though, would draw fierce fire from immigrant rights activists, who complain that Mr. Trump has turned migrants into scapegoats for the virus with his threats to tighten the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is a public health crisis needing a multidimensional public health response in our cities and states,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “History will judge harshly a president who, in a moment of truth for our nation, relies on racism rather than competence.”