2018-06-09 / Top News

H-2B Visa Cap Is Raised

By Stephanie Fortino

More seasonal international workers may be available to businesses here because the cap on the H-2B visa program has been increased by the Department of Homeland Security, which has been convinced that businesses need more seasonal help. The original cap of 33,000 visas was met in February and has now been increased to 48,000, it was announced Friday, May 25, and businesses began applying Thursday, May 31.

The H-2B visa program allows non-agricultural international workers to work in the United States for six months. A total of 66,000 visas are available during the year, granted in two allotments for the summer and winter seasons. The visas used by many businesses on Mackinac Island, Mackinaw City, St. Ignace, and other seasonal resort communities in northern Michigan begin April 1. This year saw a significant increase in the number of businesses applying, exceeding the number of available visas in the first five days of the process. The additional 15,000 visas will be available to businesses that can prove they’ll be at risk of failing if they do not get international worker help.

The H-2B visa program has been subjected to national immigration and labor debates, with opponents and supporters in both major political parties. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the authority to issue more visas if needed.

When granting the additional H- 2B visas, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen determined that there are not enough qualified American workers to fulfill the needs of seasonal businesses. She made the decision after consulting with Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, members of Congress, and business owners. But the decision really should be made by Congress, she said, not by DHS.

“The limitations on H-2B visas were originally meant to protect American workers, but when we enter a situation where the program unintentionally harms American businesses, it needs to be reformed,” she said. “I call on Congress to pass much needed reforms of the program and to expressly set the num- ber of H-2B visas in statute. We are once again in a situation where Congress has passed the buck and turned a decision over to DHS that would be better situated with Congress, who knows the needs of the program.”

Congressman Jack Bergman’s office has been helping businesses learn the status of their applications, needs of the program, and providing support when visas cannot be secured. Legislative aide Gabe Hisem regularly keeps in contact with a list of people in the Mackinac Island, Petoskey, and Marquette areas and elsewhere, providing updates and support when possible.

Pressure on the program has grown as the national unemployment rate has fallen and fewer Americans are available to take these seasonal jobs. The program is used by a wide variety of industries, not just tourism. About 45% of the H-2B visas are granted to the landscaping industry, for instance. And since businesses in the various industries and areas around the country have different needs, Congressman Bergman agrees that the H-2B program is better served by members of Congress, Mr. Hisem said.

Previously, returning H-2B workers did not count against the visa cap. The exemption was removed last year, as opponents argued it was a loophole to expand the program beyond what was intended. But returning workers are hugely important to many Straits area businesses, especially on Mackinac Island where some workers have been returning each summer for more than 20 years.

A complication this year was the introduction of a lottery process that the Department of Labor held to grant labor certifications. All of the applications received during the first five days of the application period, which began January 1, were pooled together to issue the initial 33,000 visas. Previously, applications were considered on a first-come, firstserved basis, so the lottery added another layer of uncertainty to an already precarious process. An applicant can do everything right and still not get workers.

“An unfortunate consequence, absolutely, is that some businesses that applied at 12:01 [a.m. January 1] didn’t get in,” Mr. Hisem said.

But fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security decided to lift the cap earlier this year than in 2017, when, in some cases, businesses didn’t receive workers until August. Not all of last year’s additional 15,000 H-2B visas were used, mainly because it was too late in the season for many employers to justify the investment, Mr. Hisem said. He expects more people to apply for the additional visas granted this year.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services collected applications for the additional H-2B visas. The 15,000-visa limit was reached within the first five business days of the cap being lifted. USCIS will hold another lottery to award the visas, which will include the applications received from May 31 to Wednesday, June 6.

As the H-2B visa program becomes more uncertain, there are negative implications for local business owners who struggle to operate and make plans for the future. Some local business owners have even reported delaying investment because of the uncertainty, according to Congressman Bergman’s office, which could have lasting impacts on local economies. To provide businesses some relief, Mr. Hisem works with constituents with their contingency planning in case they do not secure enough workers. While the office cannot help a single business secure visas, it can provide support and help in the process for next year.

“It’s our job to help them with the next year,” he said, “and to make sure they have the resources to make it through the summer, their contingency plans. It’s really just about managing expectations.”

There is also increasing bipartisan support for widespread H-2B visa reform on Capital Hill, Mr. Hisem said.

“The interest in the program is reaching a fever pitch, which is great for bringing cap relief,” he said, but he notes reform must consider labor relief for seasonal businesses as well as security concerns, ensuring businesses follow the process and regulations, and making sure available American workers are employed first.

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