Improving H-2A/B Temporary Work Visas

Can developing America's foreign guest worker program help meet demand for legal, low-skilled labor?

Five Figures to Consider

8 million illegal immigrants are in the U.S. workforce
680,000 family-based permanent immigrant visas are issued annually
66,000 is the annual H-2B visa cap
Zero is the cost to the federal government for the State Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act
$2.1 billion is estimated additional tax revenue undocumented immigrants would add to state and local governments if given legal work status

Surprise. In one area, what’s good for Donald Trump might be good for you and the economy too. President Trump’s businesses have employed over 1,000 H-2A/B visa holders since 2000. H-2B, non-agricultural, and H-2A, agricultural visas, are temporary guest worker permits for foreigners that allow them to legally live and work inside the country for a set period. Thousands of Americans would like to hire these workers legally too. They already do, illegally. In fact, 8 million undocumented immigrants are currently working in the U.S. on construction sites, in meat processing plants, as groundskeepers, housekeepers, nursing home attendants and more.  

Family reunification however is the underpinning of U.S. immigration policy. Almost 680,000 family-based permanent immigrant visas are issued annually, almost double the number of  work or skill-based visas. There are two significant immigration reform bills under consideration that address how the U.S. doles out visas. The first aims to lower legal immigration through reducing visas to extended family, eliminating diversity visas, decreasing the number of refugees and emphasizing “merit-based” job skills over family ties.  It does not tackle illegal immigration. Titled the RAISE Act, it is sponsored by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). The second, the State Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act, introduced by Republican Senator Ron Johnson (WI) addresses illegal immigration and labor shortages by creating a state-based guest worker program for immigrants. To start, 5,000 visas would be allocated to each state with an additional 250,000 visas available in a pool for states to draw from as needed. These state permits would be an improvement on how federal H-2A/B visas are currently structured. Why? (1) More visas would be available. (H-2B visas are capped at about  66,000 per year, and while H-2A visas are not capped, they only account for 10% of the farm worker workforce due to long processing times and red tape.) (2) The federal government would bear zero direct costs. (3) Temporary work visas could be issued for three years rather than one season. (4) Visas could be renewed. (5) Visas would cover a wider range of industries. Guest workers would not be eligible for federal welfare and health care benefits or be provided a new pathway to citizenship.

Most undocumented workers, like H-2A/B visa recipients, come to the U.S. for employment in low-skilled occupations. They come because wages are often higher here than elsewhere. A typical farmworker in the U.S. earns about $10-$12 per hour, while the same worker in Mexico makes $2-$3 per hour. With an unemployment rate of 4% and a U.S. workforce in which more than 90% of 25 to 29-year-olds have obtained a high school diploma, employers often can’t find enough workers for low-skilled jobs. Distributing so few temporary guest worker visas results in a higher flow of illegal immigrants who, if guest worker visas were available, would come to the U.S. legally. Look to the past and The Bracero Program to see this relationship. The program allowed Mexicans to work temporarily on U.S.  farms from the mid-1940s until 1964. While the program was in effect,  illegal immigration and apprehensions from Mexico fell by 95%After it ended in 1965, INS apprehensions rose 1,000% in ten years.

More legal workers equals more tax revenue. Managing the flow and legal status of low-skilled workers through participation in a state managed guest worker program would increase their state and local tax contributions by an estimated $2.1 billion a year and decrease the associated costs to taxpayers of apprehensions and deportment by at least $3.2 billion annually. It would also prevent making lawbreakers out of people who hire illegal workers. Given the opportunity who wouldn’t rather hire a lawn-cutter who paid taxes? Employ a babysitter who could visit her family abroad? Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood sure wish they had.

Strong family units are a cornerstone of American society, and allowing U.S. citizens to bring their spouses and children under the age of 21 makes for stronger communities. However, emphasizing extended familial connections (aunts, uncles, adult siblings, in-laws) as opposed to what potential immigrants could offer the U.S. and its citizens addresses neither illegal immigration nor the economy’s needs. A pragmatic immigration policy should aim to manage the legal flow of workers and generate maximum gains for the U.S. economy while containing enforcement and benefit costs.

Providing more legal work permits for low-skilled workers would reduce illegal immigration and help American employers. The federal government has yet to come up with a good solution. It is time to let states blaze a trail.