The NALP and other business groups have advocated for increasing the size of the program, which has a cap of 66,000 visas each year. Last year, Congress passed a spending bill that expanded the H-2B program so that it doesn’t count returning guest workers against the 66,000-visa limit. This expansion could add up to four times as many guest workers to the American workforce this year, and the fight to renew the provision, which expires in October, is underway again. Under the H-2B visa, employers must pay travel costs, visa fees, and housing expenses for workers during their stay in the United States. In 2014, most H-2B workers came from Mexico, with Jamaica and Guatemala sending many as well. Texas is the state that brings in the most H-2B workers.
Because it involves bringing in foreign workers, the H-2B program has drawn the ire of organized labor. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly told Congress that there aren’t enough Americans willing to take temporary jobs—at amusement parks, ski resorts, hotels—but unions say that’s just not true, and that companies are trying to save money on labor costs by exploiting cheap foreign workers at the expense of Americans. In June, representatives from North America’s Building Trades Unions said in a Senate hearing that the program is just a tool for roofing companies to pay $8 an hour to a foreigner instead of $22 an hour to a union member. The Southern Poverty Law Center has even gone as far as comparing the guest-worker programs to modern-day slavery. Yet there is hardly any independent research on how temporary workers affect the demand for American labor.
After scanning the Department of Labor’s online database of recent requests for H-2B workers, and talking to people who use the program, it’s hard to imagine that any business would go through such a bureaucratic, expensive hassle unless they truly had a shortage of willing workers. Sure, I came across a few businesses that appeared to be looking for a bargain, but the vast majority offered between $12 to $18 dollars an hour for unskilled labor, ranging from canning seafood to cleaning stables. Most of the 600-plus applications filed in the past few months sought landscape laborers, and one company in particular, Landscapes Unlimited, had filed 16 requests since May to bring in workers to maintain golf courses across the country.
I called up Cesar Martinez, who oversees recruiting for Landscapes Unlimited, which is based in Lincoln, Nebraska. He said the company has been hiring guest workers for 15 years, and plans to get 200 workers this season through the visa program, which accounts for about 12 percent of the company’s workforce. Taking into account the visa fees and other costs, it would be cheaper to hire workers already in the United States, Martinez says, but he can’t find them, and doesn’t want to hire undocumented immigrants. “We’re competing with fast-food chains and retail stores, and [Americans] seem to find those jobs more appealing,” said Martinez, whose own father first came to the United States as part of California’s bracero program, the country’s first major experiment with a guest-worker program.