New H-2B Amnesty Bill Offers Preview of Biden’s Guestworker Approach

Former Democratic presidential aspirant and U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) introduced a new bill that would transform the flawed H-2B nonimmigrant guestworker program into a permanent pipeline for low-skilled permanent immigration. This proposal mirrors many of the guestworker proposals that President-elect Joe Biden championed on the campaign trail, and gives a glimpse into his administration’s priorities in 2021.

First, there are actually some good proposals in this bill. The Seasonal Work Solidarity Act (SWSA) calls for improving working standards for H-2B guestworkers, who are unskilled, low-educated workers brought into the United States to perform non-agricultural work. They mostly work in landscaping, forestry, and the entertainment sector. Improving workplace standards is an idea that FAIR agrees with.

It also calls for raising the cost of hiring H-2B workers, another policy prescription that FAIR supports as a way to prevent employers from using the program as a way to hire cheaper foreign workers at the expense of Americans.  It also contains other measures that FAIR supports, including the creation of a national job posting website that would attract American workers to available jobs, bans third-party employers, restricts the number of H-2B workers that any employer can have, and creates mechanisms to ban employers from using the program if they commit fraud or abuse their workers in any way. In a standalone bill, these proposals would likely have broad support.

However, as with many immigration proposals, the bad far outweighs the good in the SWSA. Rep. Castro’s bill is essentially a citizenship giveaway to nonskilled H-2B workers in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and economic crisis that continues to harm American workers, and particularly those who compete with H-2B aliens for jobs. This visa giveaway occurs in two main ways.

First, it gives spouses of H-2B workers the ability to live and work in the United States under an H-4 visa and work authorization. FAIR advocates immediately terminating the H-4 carve-out for spouses of temporary, nonimmigrant workers who have no legitimate reason to live and work in the United States. Guestworkers are just that – temporary guests – and permitting their spouses to come and work in the U.S. displaces other American workers and unfairly gives alien workers a false sense of permanent residence in the country.

Second, and most importantly, the SWSA proposes giving H-2B workers and their families a pathway to citizenship after just 18 months of H-2B employment. This is an outrageous proposal. There were 129,126 H-2B admissions in fiscal year 2019. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that each of these individuals pursued the pathway to citizenship offered under SWSA.

Further, let’s assume that through chain migration, they then sponsor 3.45 additional family members. That leaves us with 445,484 individuals pursuing citizenship through a brand-new avenue – or, roughly 43 percent of the total of all green cards issued in FY 2019. In plain English, Rep. Castro’s proposal could increase permanent immigration to the U.S. by 43 percent and transform the H-2B program into an easy path to citizenship for low-skilled workers.

As the United States continues recovering from the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, this proposal is a non-starter. President Trump wisely suspended certain forms of legal immigration in addition to halting most guestworker programs as a way to protect the American economy from the negative economic impacts of immigration during a period of soaring unemployment. Many of the Americans struggling to find jobs were previously employed in the very fields that hire the most H-2B workers: landscaping, restaurants, and other entertainment. As the economy continues recovering, why would we suddenly offer a pathway to citizenship for nearly half a million people who compete directly with out-of-work Americans for jobs?

On January 20, 2021 Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States. During his campaign, he promised to amnesty nearly every illegal alien in the country. He also promised to strengthen worker protections, and garnered endorsements from major labor unions such as AFL-CIO and UFCW – both of whom support Rep. Castro’s SWSA.

Their support – and Castro’s – indicate that measures like these could find a sympathetic ear in the White House as Biden tries to unite his support before pursuing a major immigration proposal. Look to this as something that may appear in Biden’s immigration overhaul amnesty bill – something he promised in the first 100 days of his presidency.

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