Time to eliminate or reform the H-2B visa program

Time to eliminate or reform the H-2B visa program
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The White House this week paused issuing additional H-2B visas for temporary foreign workers in a move worth praising. But it’s time to go further: eliminate the program altogether in the landscaping and construction industries and reform the H-2B visa program overall.

It’s time to address the failures of the program, which grants temporary visas to foreign workers, ranging from the flagrant violations of visa law by employers, to the abusive conditions it creates for these workers and to the denial of good-paying jobs for Americans in need of work.

The H-2B visa program was intended to provide employers with access to temporary non-U.S. workers only if an employer could prove they were unsuccessful at genuinely attempting to hire American workers, and if their business would be irreparably harmed without the help of temporary visa holders.

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What started small has become commonplace. Since the program’s inception in 1990, the number of H-2B visas has ballooned eight-fold, with applications peaking at almost 100,000 in some years. The administration’s halt on issuing new visas comes only after it raised the number of visas by an additional 35,000 this year.

Problems with the H-2B program are well documented. Wages for the visa holders are low and working conditions are often poor and unsafe. The desperation of visa holders, who typically come from Mexico to work in landscaping or construction, makes it unlikely they are able to stand up for basic workers’ rights or human rights. Proving the need for the workers, which is required by law, has become a sham. Safeguards such as showing that open positions are advertised for American workers are often ignored. When they are not, the wages offered are so low as to discourage applications from workers already in the United States. 

The landscaping industry — one of the largest H-2B visa users — don’t only exploit non-U.S. workers, they undercut pay and living standards for all workers. According to Department of Labor data, employers saved as much as $3.80 per hour in wages by hiring visa-holders. In fact, the pay rate for visa-holders is about the same as for undocumented workers. 

The study of Labor Department data in one state showed that landscaping jobs were offered at a mere $10.34 an hour, forcing employers to turn to visa holders when they could not fill the positions with U.S. workers. The reason they could not fill the jobs wasn’t because American workers weren’t available; rather, employers were offering more than $3 an hour less than the prevailing landscaping hourly wage. By using H2-B visa-holders, employers undercut U.S. worker pay by more than 25 percent. 

At LIUNA, where I serve as vice president and regional manager, we know this business. Our field organizers have reached out to thousands of landscaping companies offering qualified workers to fill seasonal jobs. Their response is all too often routine: H-2B visa holders are their go-to source of labor and undocumented workers come next. They will only consider documented non-visa holders or Americans as a last resort.  

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Other independent investigative reports have uncovered similar findings. 

This is exactly the opposite of the intent of the program and of the law.  

Given that our government is unable to enforce the H-2B visa laws as it is, halting issuance of the visas make sense. But a temporary halt is not enough. 

The landscaping industry can afford to provide work that doesn’t prey on its employees. The industry is an $81 billion dollar a year business, with more than 700,000 workers, according to Lawn and Landscape Magazine’s State of the Industry Report. It’s not a “mom-and-pop” industry — more than half of the industry performs commercial landscaping. 

If employers provide better pay, better working conditions and use better recruiting, they will not need H-2B visas. Working people and our country will be better off for it.

Dennis Martire is vice president and regional manager of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Laborers’ International Union, predominantly representing construction and landscape workers in five states and the District of Columbia.