Republicans and Democrats in Congress are finally in agreement on an immigration issue: the U.S. government can grant up to 129,547 H-2B visas for non-farm workers this fiscal year, doubling the current cap of 66,000 visas.
The green light comes as a bipartisan spending bill was passed to fund the government through the end of this fiscal year. It arrives at a critical time for hotel owners, restaurants and landscaping companies, who have not been able to find enough temporary workers for the summer season. President Donald Trump himself has hired seasonal workers at his Mar-a-Lago resort with such visas.
With the spending bill, Congress has granted permission to National Security Secretary John Kelly to expand the visa program.
"The figure (of almost 130,000 H-2B) looks at the demand for visas from the previous year and states that this is the number that must be granted for this year. It is decided by labor demand, more than as just another number coming out of the sky," said Jeff Joseph, a Colorado immigration attorney specializing in this type of visa. He is in support of the expansion.
Against the clock
But even if the measure passes, it could come too late: visas must be processed and workers would have to move to the United States before the end of the fiscal year, September 30. Most employers would be seeking workers in time for the start of the summer season, at the end of May, or the July 4 holiday.
A long list of businesses rely on H-2B visas to legally employ foreign workers as housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers and other jobs that few Americans want. According to the AP, each visa costs companies an average of US$1,000, including fees, travel and other expenses.
In Ogunquit, Maine, Beachmere Inn owner Sarah Mace Diment told AP that she offered fewer rooms during the recent Spring Break because she has not been able to fill eight housekeeping and maintenance positions, for which she pays between $10 and $12.50 an hour.
She said none of her visa applications were accepted.
The H-2B visa has a maximum duration of one year and the majority are issued to Mexican workers.
The law stipulates that when employers seek to use these visas they must first publicly try to hire Americans. Critics of the HB-2 visas say the influx of cheap foreign labor undercuts U.S. workers and drives down wages.
Advocates, however, believe that the visa program stimulates the economy and also helps generate more jobs for U.S. workers.
The HB-2 visa can be renewed twice. At the end of the allowed period the visa holder must return to their country of origin. For an extension the employer must apply for a labor certification, according to the regulations of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
Under current rules the H-2B carrier may bring his or her spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21, who are granted an H-4 visa. They are not authorized to work.