The Trump administration plans to allow 30,000 more foreign workers temporarily into the United States for seasonal work through the end of September, a move that reflects how the booming economy has complicated President Donald Trump's efforts to restrict legal immigration.
Details of the plan were in a draft rule obtained by The Associated Press. It would benefit oyster shucking companies, fisheries, loggers and seasonal hotels, including Trump's own Mar-a-Lago club — all of which use the visas to hire migrants for temporary work they say Americans won't do.
The visas, known as H-2Bs, will be granted only to returning foreign workers who have had the visa before, over the last three fiscal years. Many of the visa holders return to the same employers year after year. Those workers have already been vetted and are trusted and not likely to stay past their visa, officials said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin taking applications from employers on behalf of the workers once the temporary rule is published in the Federal Register, expected on Wednesday.
The strong economy has made it increasingly difficult for employers to find labor, and the number of seasonal visas has been capped at 66,000 per fiscal year — a figure some businesses and lawmakers say is badly outdated, especially when the unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in 49 years.
Employers have argued that they desperately need more labor, pitting businesses against those both inside and outside of the White House who say the visas take away American jobs. Trump has also benefited personally from both seasonal workers and people working in the country illegally at his golf clubs.
Within the White House, there are some, like adviser Stephen Miller, who seek to restrict legal immigration, including reducing visas for high-skilled workers and suspending or limiting entry to the U.S. for individuals from countries with high rates of short-term visa overstays.
Meanwhile, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on his own immigration overhaul package for months, meeting with lawmakers and interest groups, trying to put together legal immigration and border security changes that Republicans can rally around heading into the 2020 presidential election.
Trump had once railed against legal immigration, arguing — despite conflicting evidence — that foreigners hurt American workers by competing for jobs and driving down wages. But Trump has recently changed his tune, saying he's now in favor of more legal immigration because of economic gains on his watch.
Trump announced the change during his State of the Union speech, when he said he wanted people "to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally."
The debate has played out in Congress, too, with two bipartisan groups sending letters to Homeland Security, one urging an increase in the number of temporary visas and one expressing concern over a possible increase.
Homeland Security and Labor Department officials said the decision to allocate the visas was based in part on the fact some businesses could face irreparable harm if they can't employ the workers. The two departments have jointly decided to raise the cap during the past two fiscal years, but it was only 15,000 more in those years.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Monday the additional visas were a temporary fix.
"The Department of Homeland Security continues to urge lawmakers to pursue a long-term legislative fix that both meets employers' temporary needs while fulfilling the president's Buy American and Hire American executive order to spur higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers," McAleenan said.
According to the most recent data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on visa approvals, half of the visas went to horticultural and agricultural workers. Food service, forestry and logging work and fisher, hunter trappers made up the bulk of the rest of the 2017 visas.
Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a Republican, and independent Angus King of Maine, along with Reps. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and about 25 other bipartisan lawmakers in the House and Senate, sent a letter to Homeland Security this year saying they were working on a solution for the visa cap, but until then the increase was badly needed.
But a separate group of bipartisan senators, including Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, wrote last month they were concerned the visas enabled worker exploitation and fostered human trafficking and debt bondage because of the fees associated with the visas.
"Americans working alongside H-2B visa holders can find it difficult to compel employers to abide by federal and state labor and employment laws," the senators wrote.