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Government Affairs: H-2B reforms fall victim to border wall fight, but brighter days ahead?

January 7, 2019 -  By
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United States Capitol. (Photo: LM staff)

United States Capitol. (Photo: LM staff)

A tentative agreement to double the number of H-2B visas and implement other reforms to the guest worker program did not move forward in December, as hoped, with critical federal budget bills.

The package of H-2B reforms was slated to be included with a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has been without a fiscal year 2019 budget since Oct. 1, 2018. DHS has been kept running with a series of continuing resolutions (CRs), which funded department operations at the same levels as in fiscal year 2018 until Dec. 21, 2018.

Border wall funding gets in the way
The president and Congress were not able to come to an agreement on funding for the president’s border wall in the DHS appropriation. Spending authority for DHS expired at midnight of Dec. 21, along with that of several other departments, resulting in a partial federal government shutdown that continues as of this writing.

With Congress and the president unable to come to an agreement on border wall funding, despite Republicans being in control of the Senate and the presidency, the situation will continue to get more complex now that Democrats have taken control of the House on Jan. 3.

New leaders, new hope?
The H-2B reform package was negotiated primarily with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over issues dealing with immigration. The bad news is that Grassley will be moving over to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee in the new Congress. The good news is that Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) will be stepping into the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator Graham has been more moderate on immigration issues than Grassley. In fact, he was one of the bipartisan so-called “Gang of Eight” senators who negotiated the last legislative attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. Graham also has a close relationship with President Trump, a key to getting the president on board with any immigration or guest worker reforms. So, we may even be in a better position for H-2B reform in the Senate in the new Congress.

In the House, Democrat Jerry Nadler (D-NY) will take over as chairman of the House Judiciary committee from Republican Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) who retired at the end of 2018. Goodlatte had pushed forward a package of reforms to the H-2A agricultural worker visa program, but the reforms were not supported by many agricultural groups and were not able to get a vote on the House floor.

Nadler has been more open to legislation that is pro-immigration reform than his predecessor. With Senator Graham and Rep. Nadler at the helm of the panel that controls immigration-related legislation, we may have more opportunity to achieve H-2B reform and perhaps even comprehensive immigration reform than in the previous Congress.

Need to educate Congress
One potential hang-up to H-2B reform is that some conservative Republicans and some liberal Democrats agree that the H-2B guest worker program takes jobs from and depresses wages of American workers. With both parties moving toward their ideological extremes after November’s midterm elections, this “strange bedfellows” coalition may be large enough to thwart H-2B reforms. It will be one of our major tasks in the new Congress to educate members about the difficulty of hiring workers for landscaping jobs.

While there is hope for achieving some permanent H-2B reform in the new Congress, this will have to wait until the current battle over the border wall and the government shutdown gets resolved. In the meantime, it’s important for you to continue to tell your story to your congressmen and senators about your business and the importance of the H-2B program.

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About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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