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Government Affairs: Things look grim for H-2B, but there is hope

February 6, 2018 -  By

On Dec. 21, not three months after the start of the federal fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it had reached the six-month cap of 33,000 visas for the H-2B guest-worker visa program used by many landscape contractors as a part of their labor force.

An additional 33,000 visas will be available for the second half of the year, beginning April 1, but those visas are expected to be scooped up quickly. Demand for H-2B workers is more than double (maybe triple?) the number of visas available.

Labor shortages in a hot economy

Landscape contractors find themselves in a market with severe labor shortages. With unemployment reaching historic lows (4.1 percent in December 2017), competition for labor is intense. Many landscape contractors are not able meet the demand for their services and are turning away work.

The H-2B guest-worker program has never been needed more by landscape contractors than it will be this spring and summer. Yet there appears to be only a slim chance that even the small relief of 15,000 additional visas provided late in 2017 will be available this year.

The fundamental H-2B problem

The fundamental problem with the H-2B program is that it does not have a strong natural constituency. The H-2B program serves businesses in many sectors of our economy. Landscape contractors compete with hotels, resorts, restaurants, building contractors, food processors and other sectors with a need for seasonal workers.

While these sectors have attempted to coalesce into a viable lobby, their interests are diverse and the competition among them for H-2B visas is intense. This has made it difficult to make the case to Congress that H-2B guest workers are an essential part of the economy.

Agriculture more effective lobby for H-2A

By contrast, the agriculture industry seems to have had more success in pleading its case in Congress for its guest-worker program, H-2A. Agricultural interests have been successful in having legislation introduced that has moved in Congress, although nothing yet has been passed and sent to the president. Food is essential, and agricultural interests have been successful in convincing a significant number in Congress of that. Moreover, legislators from rural areas feel a direct connection to the farmers in their districts.

Both parties move to extremes

Adding to the difficulty in moving any legislation that reforms and expands the H-2B program is that the program has been conflated with illegal immigration by many in Congress. It’s ironic that the H-2B program represents a legal way to bring essential workers into the U.S. for a short period and have them return to their country of origin. Nonetheless, for Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, immigration of any type has become the third rail of politics: touch it and you’ll be electrocuted. Under President Trump, it has only become more so.

Both parties are becoming increasingly polarized and moving to their extremes. There are fewer and fewer legislators in the middle who can represent a common-sense approach to meeting labor shortages with guest-worker programs. The party extremes meet in common cause to oppose guest-worker programs in Congress.

How DACA and the shutdown affect H-2B

The recent federal government shutdown over the lack of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or “Dreamers” legislation has further dimmed the outlook for expanding the H-2B guest-worker program but also may provide a hope for some positive action. We are in a very fluid situation where things could get better in some respects, or substantially worse.

Senate Republicans and Democrats came out of the shutdown with an agreement to work on a bipartisan bill to resolve DACA and other immigration issues. But they gave themselves a short three weeks to do so, facing another potential governmental shutdown Feb. 8. It’s a huge task.

Solving the DACA problem is the immediate chief concern of Democrats. Across the aisle, Republicans are interested in border security and a border wall, restricting the ability of family members already in the U.S. to bring relatives into the country, ending the lottery that allows some to enter the U.S. legally and other issues that will reduce the number of immigrants that can enter the U.S. both legally and illegally.

The scope of what the Senate Republicans and Democrats hope to distill into legislation in such a short period of time is forcing issues like the H-2B guest-worker program to the side. Given that this is an election year, Congress will have little appetite to take on additional immigration-related issues.

But there is hope!

On the other hand, a bill that will move to the president’s desk may come out of these negotiations. If that becomes reality, it could be a vehicle to include some guest-worker reforms.

Our national associations, AmericanHort and the National Association of Landscape Professionals, are working hard to make that happen. So, keep your fingers crossed and stay tuned for messages from these organizations to call your Congressman or Senator when they need your help over the next week or two.

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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.

2 Comments on "Government Affairs: Things look grim for H-2B, but there is hope"

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  1. Matt Owens says:

    Gregg- As usual, great job with keeping us abreast of the current governmental issues that affect our industry. Thank you for your efforts!

    I wonder…if, instead of referring to the H2B program as an immigration-related issue, perhaps it is better to refer to this for what it is- as a small business or business issue. It’s unfortunate that this work visa program is tied to immigration reform, and, not getting the attention it deserves is causing economic hardship on companies that utilize this program as well as those that do not.

    Maybe, if we, in the industry can help separate this small business issue from the immigration issue the mainstream media will as well.

    • Matt – Good to hear from you! I agree completely that we should separate guest worker programs from immigration. We have been making this case to Congress for as long as I have been working on this issue. Unfortunately, those opposed to guest worker programs, intentionally conflate guest worker programs with immigration to leverage the animus against immigrants that is too prevalent in our society, especially lately.

      The good news is that I’ve seen progress among some in Congress over the past year that our message is getting through. I’ve seen a greater acknowledgement of this as a small business/jobs issue in my recent trips to Washington and in discussion with our Pennsylvania delegation. We just need to keep pounding this message home.

      We are…