Home / Politics / Policy /  US to issue maximum number of visas allowed for seasonal workers

WASHINGTON : The Department of Homeland Security for the first time intends to issue the maximum number of H-2B seasonal-worker visas allowed by law this year, a total of more than 130,000, the agency announced on Wednesday.

Each year, 66,000 visas are set aside, split evenly between the winter and summer seasons, for seasonal employers such as landscapers, ski resorts, fisheries and vacation-town vendors. On top of that, the secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to issue up to nearly 65,000 additional H-2B visas for the year, though to date no secretary has done so, despite demand.

The U.S. will set aside 20,000 of the additional visas for workers from Haiti and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and the rest will be available to returning workers, who previously worked in the U.S. on the same visa.

Last year, the Biden administration made 55,000 additional visas available on top of the 66,000 already allotted, the largest H-2B visa release since Congress changed the rules in 2017.

The move comes amid labor shortages, particularly in low-wage sectors such as restaurants and hospitality, and demand from employers for the Biden administration to take any steps possible to bolster the economy. Employers have also complained in past years that, though both Trump and Biden administrations released additional visas, they were slow to actually issue them—a complaint the administration is hoping to pre-empt by releasing all available visas at the beginning of the government’s fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

“At a time of record job growth, this full-year allocation at the very outset of the fiscal year will ensure that businesses can plan for their peak season labor needs," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

The decision also reflects a budding strategy by the administration to create more legal pathways for immigrants who might otherwise attempt to enter the U.S. illegally for work or safety. In June, the U.S. and more than a dozen other Latin American countries signed a migration pact at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, which called on countries across the region to create new visas and temporary humanitarian protections for migrants moving throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to the visas, the administration is in the coming days expected to announce a temporary humanitarian program for Venezuelans, which would allow them to migrate legally to the U.S. and receive work authorization, rather than crossing the border illegally.

In order for employers to hire a foreign worker on an H-2B visa, they must first attempt to recruit an American worker and receive certification from the Labor Department that there are none available to do the job. The program comes with requirements on how much employers must pay the workers, so they aren’t paid less than American counterparts. Employers must continue recruiting Americans even after foreign laborers are hired. Farmworkers fall under a separate H-2A visa program, which has no limit set by Congress.

The seasonal-worker visa program scrambles traditional partisan lines. Democrats and Republicans with seasonal industries in their states have been supportive of the program, while labor unions and Republicans in favor of tighter immigration restrictions have been generally against it. Opponents have lobbied the government to limit how many visas are issued each year beyond the 66,000 required by law.

Labor unions, who form a key part of President Biden’s support, have signaled their disapproval of the move. They generally oppose the use of temporary foreign labor and say the H-2B visa program as it is now designed doesn’t give workers recourse to leave abusive or exploitative employers.

And though business groups welcomed the announcement, they are now urging Congress to permanently increase the visa cap so a similar tug of war over visa numbers won’t play out each year.

“While this is welcome news, the relief provided here remains insufficient to meet the seasonal workforce needs of many American companies," said Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Congress needs to do more to provide added certainty and predictability for seasonal businesses that are struggling to fill their job openings."

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