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H-2bad: House Sneaks Shameful Boost in Abusive Foreign Worker Visas Into Late-Night Omnibus Bill

Democrats like Maryland Sen. Mikulski have been complicit in expanding the H-2b program

Democrats like Maryland Sen. Mikulski have been complicit in expanding the H-2b program

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Language slipped into the $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill would triple the number of H-2b visas that can be issued, with some estimates suggesting the number could go from 66,000 to 250,000.  According to The Hill, many rank and file lawmakers discovered the addition Wednesday morning, meaning that it was slipped into the bill by congressional leaders overnight. 

The discovery sparked protests from a wide array of objectors including labor unions and some conservatives.  H-2b visas are issued to foreign workers for non-agricultural seasonal jobs, which can span a broad swath of industries.

Protesting the discovery on the Senate floor was ultra-conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who said of the proposed H-2b expansion:

“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.  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.”

Other conservatives protesting the measure include Chris Chmielenski, spokesman for immigration group NumbersUSA, who called out new House Speaker Paul Ryan for backing off of his promise to help American working families. Chmielenski told The Hill:

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.  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.”

Unions oppose expansion of the H-2b visa program due to the abuses and exploitation that have befallen visa holders in the past.  In February of 2013, a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Close to Slavery,” exposed the harsh realities of the program.  Many H-2b holders end up working for next-to-nothing while being illegally saddled with their own travel expenses. Some live in substandard, forced housing situations.  The AFL-CIO has been particularly harsh on the program and its abuses in the past, decrying an “addiction to cheap labor.”  

Joleen Rivera, a legislative representative at the AFL-CIO, said that the language accompanying the expansion would also water down worker protections in dangerous industries such as forestry and seafood harvesting:

“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.  We’re extremely disappointed that these measures are in the bill.

In a statement. the International Labor Working Group said that any expansion of the program should go through the proper procedurals rather than being attached to a ‘catch-all 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 program’s expansion comes at a time when immigration is a hot topic, which could result in more scrutiny than in previous years.  The House is expected to vote on the spending bill on Friday.  


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