The Biden administration on Monday finalized the release of 35,000 new guest-worker visas for the summer season, belatedly delivering on a promise made months ago to the country’s resort and landscaping businesses.
That essentially doubles the size of the seasonal workforce allowed this summer under what’s known as the H-2B visa program. It is a program heavily used by amusement parks, summer resorts and landscaping businesses.
“These additional H-2B visas will help employers meet the demand for seasonal workers at this most critical time when there is a serious labor shortage,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The program is wildly popular among many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and they had pressed Mr. Mayorkas during hearings over the last few weeks on why it was taking him so long to finalize the plans.
In theory, the visas should have been available before April 1, when the summer visa season began.
“How do we move this along?” demanded Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat. “Why is the administration taking so long to release these additional visas?”
Mr. Mayorkas countered that his troops had “moved with lightning speed.”
Under the law, there are supposed to be 66,000 H-2B visas every year, with 33,000 going to people hired between Oct. 1 and March 31, and the rest going to those hired from April 1 to Sept. 30.
Under pressure from industry groups, Congress has moved to expand the number of visas but has been unwilling to say just how many. Instead, it’s given the administration the power to issue more visas on its own.
This year’s increase is the largest administrative bump on record, with the Biden team saying a surging post-pandemic economy has created gaps that foreign workers are needed to fill.
Of the 35,000 new visas, 11,500 are reserved for workers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti — all countries that, early in the Biden administration, had accounted for a major portion of illegal border crossings. The rest of the visas will go to people who’d been approved as H-2B workers in previous years, and who are looking to return.
Companies seeking H-2B workers are supposed to certify that they first sought U.S. workers at good wages and got no takers.
But that hasn’t stopped fraud.
In one example from Maryland, a seafood and ice company hired H-2B workers for low-paying jobs but gave them roles that should have commanded higher pay. That move denied Americans the chance to take those higher-paying jobs.
The company, Captain Phip’s, used at least 142 H-2B visa workers from 2013 to 2018, though investigators couldn’t pinpoint exactly how many of those visas involved cheating.
Captain Phip’s also employed illegal immigrants, including several who had been arrested and were in deportation proceedings but were released while awaiting their cases. The company’s owner said in court documents he figured they could keep working.
Mr. Mayorkas, in announcing the new visas Monday, said there are “significant worker protections” included in the program.