Bill Keating Explains His Support For H-2B Visa Program for Foreign Workers

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The largest federation of labor unions in the country opposes a program allowing foreign nationals into the country to work, so why does U.S. Representative Bill Keating support it? 

Last week, the Democrat from Massachusetts’s Ninth Congressional District slammed President Donald Trump’s administration for what he sees as an insufficient expansion of the H-2B visa program.

The Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security announced that an additional 35,000 visas would be allotted in the second half of this year, bringing the total number of allotted H-2B visas to 101,000 overall for 2020. The H-2B visa cap is set at 66,000 per year (33,000 in the first half of the year and 33,000 in the second half), but additional visas may be provided under a particular circumstance.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department, the additional visas, “are available only to American businesses which attest that they will likely suffer irreparable harm without the ability to employ all the H-2B workers requested in their petition.”

No additional visas were allotted in the first half of the year other than the standard 33,000 issued.

The Trump administration is issuing more visas than past administrations, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. In 2016, Barack Obama’s last full year as president, the program offered 84,627 H-2B visas. However, the program is also dependent on the state of the economy. In 2009, for example, just 44,847 were issued amid a recession — a decline from the 94,304 offered in 2008, George W. Bush’s final full year as president.

Keating, who represents a district that includes Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard, which have a large supply of seasonal jobs during the summer, did not offer a number of visas he thinks is sufficient, but blasted Trump’s number as too low.

“The Trump Administration either does not understand or simply does not care about the needs of seasonal business across the nation,” Keating said in a press release Thursday, March 5. “Not only is the total amount of visas released today by DHS insufficient to meet the needs of seasonal business owners, their claim that this new criteria they are instituting is to combat fraud is a farce.

“I would say that today’s announcement shows that President Trump doesn’t understand that placing these restrictions is not effecting immigration but crippling small businesses, except that he liberally uses the H-2B process himself at his properties,” he added. “So he should know all too well.”

Inviting foreign workers into the country is a policy detested by the AFL-CIO, which represents many unions. On a page titled “Fact Sheet on Why the H-2B Program is Bad for Working People,” the AFL-CIO lays out its opposition.

Citing the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, the AFL-CIO says that in 2014, employers saved between $2.59 to $3.80 an hour by hiring H-2B workers instead of American workers in industries such as landscaping and forestry.

At an event in Plymouth on Monday afternoon, New Boston Post asked Keating how he would respond to the AFL-CIO’s concerns.

“I’ve worked with labor my whole life. The seasonal workers that come here are not their concern,” he told New Boston Post. “There’s jobs for people here. They come, work for a couple of months then go home. They’re important for our local workers too because if there’s not a full complement of workers at a restaurant, which has happened, they’ll close down their hours. The people who are here working and anticipating those jobs are hurt by that. When it comes to the seasonal issue, I don’t think we see that criticism here, and it’s an important distinction to make.”

With the unemployment rate in Massachusetts at a historically low 2.9 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Keating said finding American workers to fill the jobs might not be possible, even if state and local governments tried to encourage it.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I know they’re trying to get young people to take these jobs. In our region, the pay for these jobs is higher. I know in other parts of the country, pay has been a concern. But I think at the state level the focus is trying to get anybody to fill these jobs. It’s an enormous burden on local businesses. Hopefully in the future when we have this program, there will be more certainty and predictability.”

Massachusetts AFL-CIO Legislative Director Chrissy Lynch could not immediately be reached for comment for this story.

In published materials, the AFL-CIO argues the program displaces American workers, depresses domestic wages, and frequently leads to violations of the rights of workers. The organization argues that because those who lose their jobs while on the visa programs must go home, that employers can overwork them and underpay them and there is little recourse for the workers who oftentimes don’t speak English.

That also explains why Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders vehemently opposed expanding the program in 2013.

“Maybe I am mistaken, but I kind of think there are young people in this country who can work as lifeguards and hold other positions in some of the resorts all over this country,” he said on the Senate floor on June 4, 2013. “We are talking jobs such as being a ski instructor in Vermont. I can tell everyone that in the State of Vermont, we have a whole lot of young people who are very good at skiing and can teach skiing. We don’t need people from Europe to take those jobs away from young Americans.”

According to the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, Massachusetts had 4,534 H-2B workers in 2017, despite a labor force participation rate among high school dropouts 25 and older at 41.53 percent. That said, the Center for Immigration Studies says there are enough unemployed low-skill laborers in the country to fill these seasonal jobs.

Some media outlets have suggested ways to fill temporary summer jobs without seasonal visa programs.

The right-leaning Colorado Springs Gazette suggested that Medicaid work requirements for able-bodied adults could help fill temporary jobs. They see it as a way to reduce people’s dependency on the welfare state while helping out local businesses.

“Lots of taxpayers suffer anxiety while toiling to provide health care for people with ridiculous excuses for refusing to work,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote.

And the right-leaning Maine Wire suggests a training wage between Maine’s $12 minimum wage and the federal government’s $7.25 minimum wage to encourage more companies to hire American teenagers.

Typically, H-2B visas last for 10 months or fewer. Then, the workers are expected to return to their home country, according to the Center for Global Development.