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Congress’ omnibus spending bill expands H-2B guest worker program

The bill doubled the number of H-2B visas for US hospitality industry to hire foreign cooks, housekeepers, and servers. The increase is good news for President Trump’s properties.
26 Mar 2018 – 06:20 PM EDT
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Mar-A-Lago, Florida, President trump's private club relies heavily on H-2B visas for foreign guest workers. Crédito:

The omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last week more than doubled the number of H-2B visas available for companies to hire foreign guest workers this summer, including the Trump Organization.

The H-2B program helps US businesses fill temporary jobs at hotels, ski resorts, and landscaping companies that don’t attract enough U.S. applicants. Current law caps the number of work visas at 33,000 for the summer and 33,000 for the winter. The omnibus bill potentially increases the summer cap by about 70,000 visas.

It provides a temporary fix to current law by giving the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of Labor, the authority to raise the H-2B cap when it is determined that there is an economic need.

Many seasonal businesses — including several Trump properties, such as Mar-a-Lago in Florida — regularly hire H-2B workers as housekeepers, short order cooks and bar staff.

In February, a coalition of businesses that hire H-2B workers lobbied Congress to lift the cap.

“We are grateful that fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill includes a path forward to help save the spring and summer for many seasonal businesses, their full-time domestic workforce and the communities they serve,” said Jennifer Myers, a spokesperson for the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).

She added that the AHLA “will move swiftly to make these much-needed additional visas available,” noting that some businesses would have to close their doors, without the visas, laying off U.S. workers in the process.

The H2B visas “allow U.S. businesses to operate at a greater capacity, retain their full-time workers and contribute to their local economies,” she added. The AHLA estimated that every H-2B worker sustains 4.64 U.S. jobs.

It includes temporary workers to fill jobs in seafood processing, horse training, hospitality, amusement parks, forestry, landscaping, circuses, carnivals, food concessionaires, swimming pool maintenance, golf courses, stone quarries and other seasonal industries.

“Americans simply do not want these jobs,” said Miami immigration attorney Emilio Martinez, who specializes in H-2B visas.

Seasonal housekeepers, short-term cooks, or bartenders earn salaries of $13-16 an hour, below typical U.S. salary expectations, said Martinez. U.S. businesses have a simple choice, he added: either offer salaries of $25 an hour or close their doors. The higher salaries are “untenable”, he argued, as they would make many businesses unprofitable.

The hospitality industry lobbied hard for the visa increase. “We are talking about some of the most exclusive, high-end country clubs, resorts and casinos,” the lawyer said. “These are owned by very well-connected people.”

The summer season starts April 1 and runs through Sept 30, so businesses are hoping that the Trump administration moves quickly to determine the economic need so they can start filing applications. The bill says that in order to begin issuing the extra visas the Secretary for Homeland Security and the Secretary of Labor must reach "the determination that the needs of American businesses cannot be satisfied in fiscal year 2018 with United States workers who are willing, qualified, and able to perform temporary nonagricultural labor."

There are currently about 80 countries approved for H-2B visas, with most temporary workers coming from Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, Romania and South Africa. Under the program, employers must show that they were unable to find US workers to take the jobs. The workers are not classified as immigrants and are required to return home at the contract ends, though they may apply to return for the next season. In some cases, after being rehired for many seasons they can apply for immigrant visas.

For years, Trump’s golf clubs and resorts have relied on hiring foreign workers.

“The H-2B visa program is extraordinarily important for the narrative of this country,” said Martinez, 45, who is the son of Cuban immigrants. “Where would this country be without the tired, poor and wretched refuse?” he added, citing the famous inscription on New York’s Statue of Liberty.