Why are politicians held in such low esteem by many Americans? Because too often their true intentions are masked to win favor with one constituency while seeming to favor another. Look at how Congress and the White House are mishandling the H-2B immigration program for migrant workers. It’s a glowing example of two-faced politics.
Small landscaping, gardening, fishing, and other businesses that depend on seasonal guest workers, most of them from Mexico, are struggling because the Department of Homeland Security has inexplicably slowed its issuance of H-2B visas. The delay smacks of more anti-immigrant grandstanding by the Trump administration. But if it is, Congress is playing along.
Congress punted to Homeland Security this year and in 2017 by giving it authority to increase the number of H-2B visas, instead of doing it legislatively. That way Republicans could continue to claim they oppose any expansion of immigration, and Democrats could tell labor unions they stood fast against allowing more foreign workers to take American jobs.
Caught in the cross hairs of such duplicitous policy-making are people like Susan LeBoutillier, owner of a home improvement and landscaping business in Chester County. LeBoutillier uses the H-2B program to hire seven legally documented workers each spring to dig, lift, carry, and haul loads. Lacking those laborers, she has lost $100,000 in landscaping jobs this month. “I’m sort of panicked,” LeBoutillier told Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage. “For me, it’s the difference between paying my mortgage and not paying the mortgage.”
The H-2 guest worker program began in 1952 and was split into two parts by Congress in 1986; the bigger H-2A program for migrant farmworkers and H2-B to benefit small business owners like LeBoutillier, who need additional workers each spring and fall. H-2B workers make about $13 to $14 an hour, hardly “slave wages,” as some critics describe their pay, and employers must prove they tried to hire American workers first.
It’s difficult to get an H-2B visa. The annual limit is 66,000. Homeland Security, with the blessing of Congress, raised the limit to 129,000 last year and again this year. But it has slowed granting visas to a snail’s pace, which makes the higher ceiling meaningless. The Texas Shrimp Association says the lack of H2-B workers and the unwillingness of Americans to take jobs requiring hard labor outdoors has cost that industry up to $5 million a day.
Even the Trump Organization is affected by his administration’s sloth in issuing H-2B visas. His Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida regularly hires seasonal workers to clean, cook, and serve. So too does Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y. But any difficulty finding laborers apparently is a small price for Trump to pay to score political points with his anti-immigrant base.
That attitude will rule in Washington until enough voters recognize they are being played by politicians and demand better. Why did the number of available H-2B visas go up while the number granted went down? Why are members of Congress attacking the H-1B program for higher-skilled foreign workers instead of fixing its flaws? Why can’t Washington put politics aside to overhaul the entire immigration system? Until it does, LeBoutillier and others will become collateral damage.