DHS lifts H-2B seasonal worker visa cap by 35,000, ties it to measures tackling abuse

The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday announced that it is lifting the H-2B visa cap for seasonal guest workers by 35,000 -- coupling the move with a series of measures to tackle fraud and abuse in the system.

“This year’s supplemental allocation was determined after extensive consultation with stakeholders—including members of Congress and the Department of Labor—and is intended to strike a careful balance that benefits American businesses and American workers,” DHS said in a statement.

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The number of H-2B visas, which gives temporary legal status to non-agricultural seasonal workers in areas such as landscaping and service-industry jobs in restaurants and hotels, is capped at 66,000 a year by Congress. Congress has given DHS the authority to raise that cap by 64,000 visas a year. Last year the administration raised it by 30,000. The 35,000 number is lower than the full cap, and lower than initial reports that had tagged the increase at 45,000.

Immigration hawks have long opposed increases in H-2B visas, while business groups have said they are essential in a tight labor market. On the Hill, raising the cap has seen both bipartisan support and opposition. Groups of Republicans and Democrats have written to the administration on both sides of the issue.

“These realities of the H-2B program, as it operates today, incentivize unscrupulous employers to hire H-2B workers instead of American workers and create poor working conditions for immigrant workers and American workers alike,” a letter by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., Tom Cotton. R-Ark., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in January. “Therefore, absent significant regulatory and legislative reforms to the program, we do not believe that an increase in the number of H-2B visas is in the interests of either American workers or H-2B visa holders."

DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf was urged by lawmakers last month to increase the cap.

“I’ve got a whole 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,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said.

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“If that stretches out into June or July, before those actual releases come, that’s too late for the season and so trying to be able to get those done faster is better than slowly trying to be able to piece those out,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

DHS is responding to some of the concerns about the program by coupling the increase with measures to fight fraud and abuse in the system. Those measures include requiring matching start dates on a petition and the employer’s needed start date, greater collaboration with the Labor Department on increased site visits, and limiting supplemental visas to returning workers who have proven they can follow immigration law.

But the reforms were not enough to spare the move from criticism from groups that advocate for lower levels of overall immigration.

"The H-2B visa is a flawed program that depresses wages and eliminates job opportunities for American workers," Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said in a statement. "In our view, labor market dynamics do not justify an increase that is 5,000 more than last year. Congress must quit offloading this politically unpopular decision to bring in more wage-impacting foreign workers."

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Notably, DHS is also allocating 10,000 visas for nationals from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, in support of efforts in helping the U.S. bring down illegal immigration from their countries. The majority of visas normally go to Mexican workers.

The visas will be made available in two batches: 20,000 starting April 1, and a second batch starting May 15.