On Monday, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) introduced the Seasonal Labor for Job Creators Act to make the returning-worker exemption in the H-2B visa program permanent. Each year 66,000 six-month visas are awarded to foreign seasonal nonagricultural workers. Before the exemption expired in 2007, workers who returned home and then came back to the same U.S. companies did not count against the cap.
Now, with fewer H-2B workers, many businesses suffer labor shortages. This stifles economic growth. Simple reforms to the H-2B program would allow more seasonal immigrants to enter the country and thus improve the U.S. economy.
Many states, like Rep. Boustany’s home state of Louisiana, depend heavily on seasonal workers. By expanding the H-2B program, employers would have more access to the seasonal workers who support tourism, agriculture, and food service.
Rep. Boustany says the H-2B cap has forced Louisiana industries into a crises and that his bill would provide “emergency relief.” To keep their doors open, some firms are hiring illegal immigrants.
The H-2B program accounts for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total U.S. employment, but its impact speaks to the complementary role that immigrants play in the economy.
In the summer 2013 issue of Louisiana Agriculture Magazine, LSU’s department of agricultural economics and agribusiness surveyed Louisiana seafood processors on the impact of the H-2B program. Respondents attributed decreased efficiency and production to the H-2B caps and the end of the exemption; these employers had to change plans because of worker shortages.
There is ample economic research to suggest an expansion of this program would have positive effects. First, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimated in 2011 that “70% of seafood processing in Virginia arises from the availability and productivity of the H2-B labor workforce.” Reducing the amount of seasonal workers increases the prices of goods and services.
Second, economists at the American Enterprise Institute found in 2011 that “adding 100 H-2B workers results in an additional 464 jobs for U.S. natives.” AEI’s research shows that H-2B workers grow the economy.
Third, an Immigration Works and Chamber of Commerce report in 2010 found that “many American businesses could not function without the H-2B program. Small, medium-sized, and large employers in every region of the country count on it to keep their businesses open and growing, and to create opportunities for U.S. workers.” Moreover, the study found that the H-2B program does not depress the wages of U.S. workers in similar occupations or take jobs from Americans. It’s a win-win for immigrants and native-born Americans.
The Brookings Institution found that in 2013, the top five H-2B occupations were landscapers, forest workers, amusement park workers, housekeepers, and groundskeepers, making up over 50 percent of all requests, totaling over 40,000 immigrants.
Some ask why native-born Americans can’t fill in these labor shortages. They can, but many native-born Americans are uninterested in temporary or seasonal manual labor and would rather wait for full-time opportunities with better working conditions. This creates shortages that are filled by temporary immigrant workers.
Others may ask whether the presence of guest workers increases illegal immigration. My colleague David Bier at the Niskanen Center busts this myth by showing that likely less than 1 percent of H-2B workers overstay their visas.
Finally, the expansion of legal opportunities for foreign worker is supported by public opinion. A recent analysis by the Niskanen Center found that from 2001 to 2014, Americans supported foreign workers 56 percent to 34 percent, including increasing the number of migrant workers, with 60 percent support from Republicans. In 2013 an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that more than 70 percent of Democrats and Republicans favored a guest-worker program for low-skilled workers.
Rep. Boustany has been a long-time defender of the H-2B program and immigration reform. In 2008, he introduced legislation to increase the number of H-2B workers. Earlier this year he wrote a letter, with support from four other members of Congress, stating the case for making exemption permanent. More of his colleagues should follow his leadership on this issue.
Making the returning-worker exemption permanent would be an important first-step in reforming the U.S. immigration system and improving the American economy.