Funding deal hits backlash over increase in foreign worker visas

December 17, 2015 in News by RBN Staff

The Hill | Alexander Bolton | 12/17/15 06:00 AM EST

The $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill includes language that would dramatically increase the number of visas available for foreign workers, setting off alarm bells among conservatives and labor unions.

Congressional leaders quietly slipped the provision into the 2,009-page funding bill, with rank-and-file lawmakers only discovering it Wednesday morning. The move immediately sparked protests from across the political spectrum.


The provision could more than triple the number of H-2B visas for foreign workers seeking jobs at hotels, theme parks, ski resorts, golf courses, landscaping businesses, restaurants and bars. The move is intended to boost the supply of non-agricultural seasonal workers.

“These foreign workers are brought in exclusively to fill blue collar non-farm jobs in hotels, restaurants, construction, truck driving, and many other occupations sought by millions of Americans,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an outspoken critic of President Obama’s immigration policies, in a statement.

“The GOP-led Congress is about to deliver Obama a four-fold increase to one of the most controversial foreign worker programs. The result? Higher unemployment and lower wages for Americans,” he said.

Sessions estimates the number of H-2B visas will soar from 66,000 to 250,000 because of the language in the omnibus. He took to the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to protest the maneuver.

Chris Chmielenski, a spokesman for NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for less immigration, criticized Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for allowing the provision into the omnibus after pledging to look out for American workers in his first speech to the House after taking the gavel.

Ryan called on Congress to look after working-class families after he won election to the Speaker’s office in October.

i“If there were ever a time for us to step up, this would be that time. America does not feel strong anymore because the working people of America do not feel strong anymore,” he told colleagues on the House floor. “I’m talking about the people who mind the store and grow the food and walk the beat and pay the taxes and raise the family.”

Chmielenski said those same working families would be hurt by the visa rider.

“H-2B visas are for low-skilled foreign workers who typically compete with people who have a high school diploma or less and these are the people who are struggling the most,” he said.

“These are the people that Ryan seemed to be referencing in his speech, and yet he sneaks in a provision in the omnibus that’s going to quadruple the number of low-skilled foreign worker visas,” he added.

NumbersUSA plans to mobilize its grassroots activist network in an effort to get the language removed from the spending package.

Conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in October that Ryan promised the House Republican Conference before being elected that he would not bring a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor while Obama was still in the Oval Office.

A House GOP aide said the visa provision was written by the Judiciary Committee, and that the Speaker was not involved.

The aide added that Ryan did not pledge that he wouldn’t touch any programs related to immigration, only to keep major legislation, such as the 2013 Senate bill that included a pathway to citizenship, from moving. The language in the omnibus falls well short of that.

The policy rider comes at a sensitive time for Republicans, with their leading candidates for president engaging in a fierce debate over immigration.

At the presidential debate in Las Vegas Tuesday evening, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slammed rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for co-authoring a comprehensive reform bill in 2013 that would have given a path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.

Rubio shot back by arguing that Cruz at the time supported dramatic increases in the number of visas for foreign workers. He claimed Cruz supported a 500 percent increase in the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers and doubling the number of green cards.

But the uproar over the visa provision isn’t confined to conservatives.

The AFL-CIO and the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, powerhouses in the labor movement, also took aim at the visa provision, warning it would lead to exploitation of foreign workers and Americans losing jobs.

“The language basically rolls back protections for low-wage workers and guest workers and American workers in this industry while lowering the protections for workers,” said Joleen Rivera, a legislative representative at the AFL-CIO.

She said that only 66,000 foreign seasonal workers are allowed into the United States per year but predicted the number could swell to 200,000 because of the language in the omnibus.

Rivera said it would also water down workers’ protections in dangerous industries such as forestry and seafood harvesting.

“We’re extremely disappointed that these measures are in the bill,” she said.

Labor groups say the language should go through regular procedural order instead of being thrown into a catchall bill.

“The House language would lead to the admission of almost 200,000 additional low-wage guest workers and would eliminate protections that keep workers from being brought in and idled without work or pay for long periods of time,” the International Labor Recruitment Working Group said in a statement.

The group said the language would prevent U.S. workers from getting “first dibs” on jobs and deny U.S. workers the rights to the rights to the same wages.