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Government Affairs: Will Trump increase H-2B visas?

June 6, 2017 -  By

In late April, Congress passed an appropriations bill to fund the federal government through the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Contained in that bill was language that provided the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to double the number of H-2B visas available, from 66,000 to 129,000, if the secretary found that there was “need.”

Listening session

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a national telephone call-in “listening session” to hear opinions on the H-2B language in the appropriations bill. DHS said in the invitation to the listening sessions that it was interested in “the impact that any potential increase in the number of H-2B workers may have on U.S. workers.” Clearly, DHS was interested more in the worker side of the issue, rather than the employer side of the issue.

Most of the callers to the listening session were employers supporting the increase in visas by a ratio of about three to one. Employers represented a wide range of industries and geographic locations. Callers included landscape contractors, small hotel owners, grocery store owners and salmon packers. They called in from Alaska to Maine.

Many of those who called in to oppose increasing the number of visas were also in favor of eliminating the H-2B program completely. Most of those expressing opposition represented anti-immigration organizations.

The Homeland Security secretary is under no obligation to make a decision on expanding the number of visas and there is no established timeline for a decision. The provision in the appropriations bill giving the secretary the authority to increase the number of visas will expire at the end of this fiscal year in September, so time is of the essence.

What does the future hold?

Predicting the future direction of Trump Administration policies is not an easy task, but recent events may give us some clues.

On May 25 at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the DHS budget, Secretary John Kelly told Sen. Lisa Murkowski that he was seriously considering providing some, but not the full, increase in the H-2B cap. (See video at 1:54:50).

Will Secretary Kelly’s statement hold when this issue gets into the cement mixer that is the White House decision-making process?

Paris Climate Agreement

The recent presidential statement pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement gives some insight into how the White House decision-making process is working, for the moment. It also gives us insight into who is ascendant among the presidential advisers, the Bannon camp or the Kushner camp.

Presidential adviser Steve Bannon, the once chairman of Breitbart News, was a major factor in convincing the President to pull out of the Paris agreement. Bannon argued that pulling out would fulfill a Trump campaign promise and play to Trump’s base of rural working-class voters. On the side of staying in the Paris climate agreement was the President’s more moderate son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The more populist Bannon won. Trump’s Russia problems seem to be driving him to shore up his base voters and rely more on Bannon’s advice.

Campaign promises and jobs

The H-2B program is like the Paris climate agreement in that it plays to Trump’s base and fulfills a campaign promise to eliminate guest-worker programs that, as Trump alleges, take American jobs. Bannon’s previous employer, Breitbart News, has long opposed guest-worker programs, especially the H-2B program.

Given that this decision involves a Trump campaign promise, it’s very unlikely that Kelly will make this decision without White House involvement. If the direction that the Trump Administration takes is to approve an increase in H-2B visas, we will probably know that in a week or two. On the other hand, if the decision is not to increase the number of visas, the Administration may just let the clock run out until Sept. 30, when Kelly’s authority to increase the number of visas expires.

Let’s hope Secretary Kelly comes through.

Photo screenshot: Senate Appropriations Committee hearing video

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Gregg Robertson

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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