The Biden administration on Tuesday announced that it is increasing the number of available H-2B seasonal worker visas available -- increasing the number by 22,000, with 6,000 reserved for workers from Central American countries.
The number of visas, which gives temporary legal status to nonagricultural seasonal workers in service jobs in restaurants and hotels, as well as other areas like landscaping, is currently set at 66,000 by Congress, but it can be increased by the departments of Homeland Security and Labor.
DHS said it will increase the visa number by 22,000 and will reserve 6,000 for nationals from Northern Triangle countries -- Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- in line with an executive order signed by President Biden earlier this year designed to restore orderly migration at the southern border.
"The H-2B program is designed to help U.S. employers fill temporary seasonal jobs, while safeguarding the livelihoods of American workers," DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. "This supplemental increase also demonstrates DHS’s commitment to expanding lawful pathways for opportunity in the United States to individuals from the Northern Triangle."
The Trump administration initially raised the cap by 35,000 last year but later stopped it due to the pandemic after raising it 30,000 in 2019. The Trump administration had blocked off 10,000 visas for Central American workers last year.
The H-2B program has seen support and opposition from both sides of the aisle. Last year a coalition of Democrats and Republicans urged the Trump administration not to raise the cap, arguing that it is rife with abuse and incentivizes "unscrupulous employers to hire H-2B workers instead of American workers and create[s] poor working conditions for immigrant workers and American workers alike."
Those who call for an increase in workers say that the program is vital to getting summer businesses the employees they need. In its press release, DHS said employers reported critical vacancies.
"During recent engagement with American businesses that rely on the H-2B program during the summer months, employers expressed an immediate need for supplemental, temporary guest workers for this fiscal year," it said. "Businesses across the country, despite attempts at recruitment and hiring of U.S. workers, report critical vacancies. This leaves already vulnerable businesses in danger of significant potential revenue loss."
That claim was dismissed by immigration restrictionist groups who have long opposed the H-2B program, describing it as rife with abuse from companies keen for cheap foreign labor.
"This is just another day’s work for an administration hell-bent on eliminating any meaningful limits or restrictions on immigration," said RJ Hauman, head of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Even prominent unions that supported President Biden pointed out that H-2B is rife with abuse, displaces American workers, and suppresses wages. Did they listen? Nope. Businesses reliant on cheap foreign labor were calling."
Hospitality labor union "UNITE HERE" opposed such a move ahead of the announcement, expressing "serious reservations about the expansion of temporary visas -- the alphabet soup of visas and special provisions that are too often a sop to a wealthy few. Certain employers, we fear, are gaming this system."
"There must be much greater supervision by DOL and DHS over abuses in H-2B visas. Until we can be certain of an end to these abuses, we are seriously opposed to expansions of these visas," the union said.
The announcement comes days after the Biden administration sparked controversy by announcing it was keeping the current cap for refugees at 15,000 for this fiscal year before announcing it would increase that number by the middle of May -- after the initial announcement sparked backlash from Democrats and immigration activists.