House Moves Toward H-2B Flexibility as Administration Suspends New Visas
On July 15, the House Appropriations Committee passed by voice vote an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 spending bill to allow the agency to issue supplemental H-2B visas above the 66,000 statutory cap during FY2021. This provision is identical to language included in current law, whereby DHS has the discretion to effectively double the number of H-2B visas, using peak “returning worker exemption” numbers as a benchmark. To address obvious concerns related to the current state of the job market, each co-sponsor argued that DHS should have the flexibility to authorize the hiring of more H-2B workers since no-one can predict the state of the economy in 2021.
A bipartisan group of House lawmakers spoke in favor of H-2B flexibility, including Reps. Pingree (D-ME), Cuellar (D-TX) and Harris (R-MD), who co-sponsored the amendment. Congressional Horse Caucus member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) also spoke in favor of H-2B visa flexibility. Notably, two members of the committee made statements opposing the bill. This included Rep. Fortenberry (R-NE), who believed that guest workers would displace summertime, teenage workers, and Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA), who raised process concerns. She argued that only the authorizing committee – in this case the House Judiciary Committee – can make substantive changes to guest worker programs.
While Congress moves toward flexibility, the Administration is moving in a different direction. On June 22, the Administration issued a proclamation announcing that it would suspend issuance of new non-immigrant visas, including the H-2B visa program that supports racetracks and other seasonal operations, through the end of 2020. Prior to this action, on April 22, the Administration suspended entry of certain green card candidates into the country for a period of 60 days, citing economic conditions arising from COVID-19.
On June 22, White House officials conducted a conference call with representatives from the business community to review highlights from the president’s directive. According to White House staff, the proclamation is a “temporary pause” and applies only to applications for new work permits. It will not impact guest workers already holding valid, H-2B visas. The Administration also included an exemption for H-2B workers who “provide temporary labor … essential to the U.S. food supply chain.” Moving forward, the White House stated that it would review the proclamation and issue modifications as needed within 30 days, and “every 60 days thereafter while this proclamation is in effect.” To that end, AHC will keep you posted on possible modifications to the 2020 program, and a path forward for 2021 as appropriations bills move forward.
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