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For a moment in mid-June it seemed like the stars might be aligning for getting the returning-worker exemption reinstated in the H-2B visa program.

If reinstated, the returning-worker exemption would not count those workers who had been granted visas within the past two seasons against the 66,000 statutory cap. This move would effectively double the number of visas available under the H-2B program.

Leadership-backed bill fails

But the House Republican leadership-backed immigration bill containing the H-2B returning-worker exemption failed by an overwhelming margin 120-301, with almost half of all Republicans voting against the bill and no Democratic votes.

The returning-worker exemption was added at the last minute to attract more votes to an immigration bill that seemed doomed from the start.

Republicans control the House

House Republicans have enough votes to pass any piece of legislation on which they all can agree. The problem is that House Republicans cannot agree on any piece of immigration legislation.

And House Republican leadership refuses to put forth a bill with provisions that would attract Democratic votes. There are enough moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats to pass a bipartisan immigration bill, but House leadership only will consider bills for which Democrats will not vote.

Battle among Republicans

What played out was an internal battle within the Republican conference among moderates and the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus. The bill attempted to pull together a number of immigration issues that have been bouncing around Congress for months—no, make that years.

The issues included limits on legal immigration, a southern border wall, a new guest worker program for agriculture (H-2C), a fix for the DACA kids that came here as children and provisions to keep together families who crossed into the U.S. illegally, among others.

Last minute wrangling

As provisions in the bill were added and deleted in an attempt to attract the votes of moderate Republicans, the bill would lose Freedom Caucus votes and vice versa. This is when the returning-worker exemption for H-2B was inserted to garner more votes. The wrangling went on like this for several days before the final vote.

In the end it didn’t work. The result was a bill that three-fourths of the entire House and almost half of Republicans rejected.

Where from here?

The House’s failed attempts at conjuring up an immigration bill have left many issues hanging that probably will not be addressed in this session of Congress. With Congressional elections looming this November, Congress members’ focus will be on getting reelected.

Our last hope for getting any relief on the H-2B cap will come as Congress attempts to fund the government for the next fiscal year. Spending authority will expire on Sept. 30 unless new spending bills are passed or Congress punts with a continuing resolution (which simply authorizes the government to spend what it spent last year). These must-pass appropriations bills are how we got the 15,000 visa cap increase this past March.

The fact that the returning-worker exemption made it into last month’s failed immigration bill gives us a glimmer of hope. If we can build on that, perhaps we can get the provision into these must-pass appropriations bills later this summer.

Call to action

Call, write and visit your member of Congress this summer when they are home in the district and tell them your story. Also, stay in touch with your national associations, AmericanHort and NALP. They will be holding fly-ins and other opportunities for you to make your voice heard.

This article is tagged with , , and posted in Blog

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

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