How H-2B Visa Reform Can Turn the Tide on Immigration Reform

Image By: Tyler Mahal Photography

Immigration advocates have been dealt significant blows in recent months, and the path for comprehensive reform remains in limbo. The Senate parliamentarian dashed hopes to include a pathway to citizenship in the budget reconciliation bill currently being negotiated, while other reforms remain subject to negotiation. And we all saw the devastating photos from Del Rio, Texas, in September, showing border patrol agents using whips to control crowds of Haitian immigrants. It is no secret that the mere mention of immigration evokes emotions and negative imagery from lawmakers and the media. However, public sentiment tells a very different story.

According to a poll conducted by the Cato Institute earlier this year, 91% of respondents support immigration to the United States, and 72% say they understand that jobs are the primary reason to immigrate. As occurs so many times, our national politics and media messages simply do not match the opinions of the people. We have been at an impasse for so many years on the way forward to immigration reform, but we can look for ways to start chipping away at the larger problems. Perhaps, comprehensive immigration reform is out of reach due to the polarization of our politics today, but that should not deter us from progress.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can hardly pass a restaurant or other small business without seeing a help wanted sign in the window. Staffing shortages have crippled businesses and hurt the economic recovery that is desperately needed to fully move past the pandemic. It has been particularly difficult for seasonal employers to maintain staffing, even more so when employers can see potential workers in the immigrants attempting to enter the United States. The H-2B visa program has been one of the most successful non-immigrant employment programs ever created, yet is limited by the scope of the program, which has not been updated since 1990. Created as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, this program allows employers to hire non-immigrants to work legally in the United States for a limited number of months per year. Employers take on the financial responsibility for the costs associated with the program and pay wages set by the Department of Labor. This allows the workers to return home to their families each year, with wages they otherwise would not be able to make in their home countries.

This legal program is a model for how the United States can begin to manage the flow of immigrants and non-immigrants coming to the country, as well as shore up American businesses struggling to maintain enough staff to remain profitable. The H-2B visa program should be expanded beyond the annual limit of 66,000 workers. Contrary to perceptions that immigrants arrive as “takers,” these workers pay taxes, including state and federal withholding taxes, and unemployment compensation; as well as Medicare and Social Security. These jobs are so coveted, more than 95% of H-2B visa holders return to their employers each year they are eligible, and they are dedicated to following the regulations allowing them to work. There is no path to citizenship and families are not brought to the United States under this program.

There is opportunity here for the Biden Administration and Congress to expand this existing H-2B visa program to begin the process of finding more common ground on comprehensive immigration reform measures. The vast majority of Americans understand the need for a supplemental workforce, especially with the current labor shortages. We can turn the tide on comprehensive immigration reform with these positive examples of legal worker visas, and the success it brings to American businesses. This moment requires the political courage to take this first step, doing nothing more than increasing access to an already successful program. A stronger economy and a stronger America await on the other side.