Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

Who says the age of bipartisanship is dead? Politico reports that Republican and Democrat lawmakers are coming together on an issue they can agree on: the critical shortage of low-wage workers in the United States.

In this age of Congressional gridlock, a bipartisan effort should be big news, especially on a hot-button, trending subject like immigration. Yet the "quiet yet active push" to increase H-2B visas for non-agricultural temporary workers has largely been kept under wraps. As part of an omnibus spending package, Congress voted in December to quadruple the number of available H-2B visas this fiscal year, but the hush-hush campaign was so successful that mainstream papers like the Washington Post didn't include the H-2B provision in their summary and analysis of the bills.

The current effort seeks to make the H-2B increase permanent and the mainstream media brownout is part of the political strategy. 

"We’re not prepared to talk about H-2B until we get closer to the markup," Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland told Morning Consultwhich reports that the expansionists hope to avoid a floor vote (and public debate) by attaching the provision to a must-pass Department of Homeland Security spending bill.

A floor debate could catch the media's attention. And media attention to the H-2B program has not been kind to expansionists lately. Mikulski, a long-time champion of the H-2B program, received some bad local press from the City Paper during last year's H-2B expansion push:

"H-2B workers -- many of them from Latin America -- are brought to the U.S. by employers to work as nannies, housekeepers, landscapers, and to pick crabmeat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, among other jobs. Mikulski's bill would erase regulations enacted last spring because of pressure from these workers themselves—Latina women, in many cases. The senator was explicit about her desire for lower wages in an Oct. 27 letter she and 15 other senators sent to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

"'We want to ensure that employers who rely on the H-2B program are not forced to pay artificially-inflated wages that drive up costs to the point of putting them out of business,' she wrote."

"The regulations Mikulski is trying to erase require employers to pay their workers' costs to get to the American job, and that they pay a "prevailing wage" to the foreign workers that is not lower than what they'd pay comparably skilled Americans."

Like all guest worker programs, lower labor costs are a feature of the H-2B program. 

"Around the country, lawyers and labor brokers actively promote the H-2 program as a way to boost profit margins," reports Jessica Garrison of BuzzFeed News"The H-2 program dates all the way back to 1952, and employers have been coming up with ways to game the system for almost as long."

If you think "game the system" implies corruption and fraud, you're right. Cases of fraud and abuse have been well documented by the Government Accountability Office. In "Guest worker program used as gateway for labor abuse, trafficking," Alex Devoid of Arizona Sonora News reports:

  • "H-2B workers are historically the least protected, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC."

  • "Effective governmental oversight of the H-2B program is extremely lacking, according to the ACLU." 

  • "Visa petitioners engage in pervasive visa fraud, as documented by the GAO."

Secretary Perez's Department of Labor is more likely to respond to Sen. Mikulski's concerns than to those of the groups quoted in Devoid's story. According to a scathing report from BuzzFeed News, the Department of Labor cares more about collecting fees through the H-2 programs than protecting guest workers or Americans displaced by the program:

"Repeated government audits have found that the Labor Department suffers from an 'inability to consider debarment' for the most serious violators. Records and interviews show that the agency has blocked its own staffers from even trying to find out whether companies are breaking the law, and that sometimes it ignores its own investigators when they suggest that abusive employers be debarred."

The abuses are widespread:

"...employers frequently exploit foreign H-2 workers, stealing their wages, housing them in squalid conditions, and even endangering their lives. At the same time, many companies use the program to avoid hiring qualified Americans, who by law are are supposed to get first crack at those jobs."

These practices survive in the shadows. The alphabet soup of guest worker programs and regulations don't translate into concise, easily-digestible news stories the way that debates over legalization, a border wall, or deportations sometimes can. BuzzFeed's award-winning series on the H-2 programs is long-form investigative journalism that few mainstream immigration reporters are free to practice. And yet we've seen with the Disney H-1B scandal how the mainstream media can shine a light on abusive guest-worker programs and push the issue to the forefront of a presidential election.

No wonder the H-2B expansionists want to keep their efforts quiet. Bensinger reports:

"Overshadowed by the larger immigration debate, the H-2 program is virtually unknown to the general public. But one major constituency champions it: American business, which prizes the steady supply of cheap and pliant labor. The entire program, from its expansive reach to its weak regulation, has been shaped by the businesses that benefit from it."

Although the media coverage of the current effort to expand the program has been light, the lobbying has been heavy. Politico:

"More than 1,000 organizations as part of the H-2B Workforce Coalition sent a letter to Senate and House committees in late March, asking Congress to keep last year’s expansion in this year's funding bills. The members of the group say they often can't find Americans to work temporary jobs to staff carnivals, maintain swimming pools and train horses."

Non-farm animal caretakers and Amusement and recreation attendants are the #10 and #3 top H-2B occupations respectively. A lot of those jobs are summer jobs that historically have been available to teenagers. But according to the economist, Andrew Sum:

"Since the nation began to add jobs in 2009, we’ve created about 5.2 million additional jobs for America’s workers. Teenagers in the aggregate received none of them. Not one."

The H-2B expansionists claim that they can't find any teenagers would look pretty silly next to Sum's PBS NewsHour interview. 

But what about horse trainers? Media inquiries there don't help the expansionists either. BuzzFeed News tells the story of Nicole Burt who "showed, trained, and groomed horses" as a teenager and applied for a job straight out of high school.

"But when Burt called to check on her application, she was told no jobs were available.

"'Basically we never hire US workers who are applying,' the farm’s director of human resources, LaTerri Williams, told the Department of Labor in a signed statement. 'I don’t conduct interviews or take their applications. Basically I just tell them we have no openings.'"

The farm (former home of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew) was petitioning for H-2 guest workers, claiming that it faced "a distinct labor crisis."

"I kept hearing the employers say that they couldn’t find anybody. And I just want to smack them, because we're right here,' said Burt. 'I felt betrayed. I just felt like America had let Americans down."

The top H-2B occupation - accounting for nearly half of the visas - is landscaping. Unemployment rates in landscaping are twice the national average.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals has coordinated a "fly-in" this Wednesday, May 18, to lobby Members of Congress to make last year's H-2B visa expansion permanent.

If all goes according to plan, the mainstream media won't cover the event.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Low-skilled Americans
H-2B visas

Updated: Mon, Jul 24th 2017 @ 3:24pm EDT

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