While the House’s push for more non-skilled guest worker visas is being portrayed as an immigration-friendly move, labor unions are calling the bill out as one that sides with big business in its quest for low-wage workers.
The proposed House immigration bill calls for 400,000 new H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to work temporarily in the U.S. in what are considered low-skilled trades. The House version doubles the number of visas called for in the Senate version, which already included a hike of annual visas to 220,000 within five years. The Senate’s version calls for a cap of 20,000 in the first year — rising to 75,000 by the fourth year before allowing the final hike.
The move for more low-waged worker visas in the House is being led by the GOP, particularly Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho, who co-sponsored legislation that seeks to increase the number of H-2B visas.
The Republican Party, typically seen as more conservative in their approach to immigration reform, is now leading the way for low-wage foreign residents to work in the country — a move that’s a boost to businesses already relying on low-wage foreign workers.
Businesses have lobbied for no cap on the number of low-wage foreign worker visas, while unions like the AFL-CIO have pressured congressional leaders to severely limit the number of guest worker visas, claiming the onslaught of foreign workers demanding less hurts American workers — not only in terms of jobs available, but ultimate compensation.
“As the global recession continues to take its toll on the American economy, this is an opportune time to re-examine the H-2B program and to evaluate whether these jobs could be filled with people already in the United States,” Center for Immigration Studies Fellow David Seminara wrote.
According to a report released by the organization, American companies have long been lobbying for more low-skill worker visas. In 2008, American companies filed a petition requesting 300,000 H-2B visas — the largest recipient of those visas going to large companies like Six Flags and Marriott. While that specific request was not granted, workers have consistently been granted more visas. In 1997, the number of visas granted was approximately 15,700. By 2007, it was just shy of 130,000, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.
The push for more H-2B visas also comes at a time of high unemployment, with the national rate at 7.4 percent — still far higher than the 2000 unemployment rate of 4 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The current rate is lower than its highest recession point of 10 percent in 2009, but it’s nowhere near the pre-recession May 2007 rate of 4.4 percent. Even those jobs that have been created are said to come in the low-income sector, doing little to help those aiming to work their way out of assistance and debt.
The call for an increased low-skill worker visa program also comes at a time when American reliance on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is at an all-time high, reflecting the current weakness of the job market playing out for low-income families.