Search for:

New Regulations Demonstrate H2 Visas Need Real Reform

author Published by Jared Culver

Both the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) have noticed new regulations designed to protect foreign workers from the explosion of exploitation within the labor market. While the attempts to stop the exploitation should be applauded, the new regulations are correctly understood as mere Band-Aids on deep wounds. Not only do the regulations largely restate the rules that are already being broken, but they are also relying on a severely understaffed workforce to enforce them. Without dramatic reforms to H2 visas, we can expect more exploitation that violates foreign workers and shuts out Americans. 

The USCIS regulation deals with both the H-2A and H-2B visas. One of the issues the rules would address is the fact that foreign workers are beholden to their employers. It increases the ability of a foreign worker to change jobs without first leaving the country and locating a new employer to petition the government. This is referred to as “portability”. Portability already existed in the rules under a reduced time-frame, and it also required that employers taking advantage of it be enrolled in E-Verify. Sadly, the regulation removes the E-Verify component to broaden the opportunities for foreign workers. At a time when we desperately need more E-Verify compliance, it is an unfortunate step back. 

Additionally, the rule would require a one-year bar for employers using the visa programs if they are caught requiring employees to pay otherwise prohibited fees for their work. This is important because employers have been stealing money from foreign workers by charging all sorts of “fees.” Many workers end up in debt bondage through some of these arrangements. 

Another change in the USCIS rule is providing “whistleblower” protection for H2 workers, similar to the protections for H-1B employees. Essentially, a worker who can prove retaliation by an employer for speaking out for violations could remain in the United States and work for another employer and even change status to another nonimmigrant category to do so. They clearly hope that this protection will allow foreign workers to speak freely and report violations. 

As for the WHD rule, it focuses on the H-2A program. The WHD specifically expands protected action by H-2A workers to collectively fight for better working conditions without fear of retaliation. This also includes allowing H-2A workers to invite guests, like labor unions, to their living quarters (which are provided by the employers). These types of protections are designed to allow H-2A workers access to organizations that would defend their rights. Theoretically, this functions as a force multiplier to stop well-known employer abuses.

The WHD also proposes to change the effective date for the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) so that all workers would be required to be paid the new rate upon its publication. Also, the WHD attempts to streamline the debarment process for violators (including successors in interest so employers cannot easily change their name and continue violating) and includes much more transparency requirements for employers and recruiters of H-2A employees. 

So, it is fair to say that both USCIS and WHD are trying, which is more than they have been able or willing to do in the past. The problems with their attempt largely point to bigger issues with the overall programs. For starters, to be clear, a lot of this is sound and fury, which signifies nothing. Neither USCIS nor WHD have the resources to enforce these new regulations than they have the resources to enforce the current rules. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported that WHD recently had the lowest number of investigations of farms since 2000. 

USCIS has policies on the books that make the agency little more than an approval assembly line for benefit applications. For example, USCIS has an official policy to defer to past decisions on extensions of benefit applications. This saves time (and they are overwhelmed) but doubles and triples down when mistakes are made in the first instance. USCIS has other policies that require staff to defend denials with extra paperwork that is not required for approvals. Often, denials are subject to more scrutiny than approvals, and staff are also sometimes given quotas for the number of applications to process, which further incentivizes less scrutiny for fraud. The Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) component of USCIS has seen completed cases decline during the Biden Administration, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Setting aside the lack of resources for enforcement at scale, much of this new rulemaking amounts to restating what is already in the rules. Employers are not supposed to be stealing wages, charging fees, creating unsafe work environments, or retaliating against employees who raise concerns. These rules are not only for foreign workers but are already in our labor and employment laws. In other words, these new proposed regulations are not breaking much new ground. Instead, they are attempting to coax foreign workers into fighting back on their own because of the aforementioned lack of resources. Of course, if the foreign workers know the government is asleep at the wheel and they are desperate for work, then there is little chance for these new rules to make a difference. 

The current H2 programs have exploitation baked into the cake. There is ample evidence that the enforcement cavalry is not walking through that door. Employers reading these new regulations will see stiffer penalties on paper, but they have seen a lot written down that was never enforced. That’s because enforcement of the rules is expensive. It not only costs money, but it is time intensive. The government cannot just suspect a violation and go from there. Even assuming they get a lead on violations, the investigation can take months or years. Assuming they can get cooperation from workers and locate relevant evidence, they have to obtain some final judgment and then battle any appeals. Detecting and punishing fraud costs time and money the government does not have. If it is not a major priority for a government agency, it will quickly fall by the wayside. Employers and employees know this. 

If there is going to be real reform of the H2 visas and other nonimmigrant work visas, it will first have to acknowledge the resource, scale, and priorities arguments. First, resources for the oversight of these programs must match the scale of them. Either we massively increase funding directed to regulating these programs or reduce the scale to match the resources we are willing to devote to managing them. Any other choice is essentially feeding workers to an exploitation economy. Additionally, the government must have the system’s integrity as a paramount concern. Policies that place efficiency of approvals over consideration of valid reasons for denial lead to the abuse we see across the immigration landscape. 

When you read the rules we are discussing here, you will see the government admitting the extensive nature of exploitation and abuse of workers throughout these programs. The same people writing these admissions were likely part of approving many of those petitions for workers who were abused. Each and every one of these abuse cases cited by the government only happened because they failed in their jobs. Our lonely eyes now turn to them to save us. 

Real reform requires choosing between massively increasing resources for enforcement or reducing the scale to a manageable one. Given that the massive numbers of foreign workers harm American workers, it seems obvious that the solution is reducing the numbers in these programs. Otherwise, American taxpayers are funding a system that is crowding them out of the job market or, at best, reducing their wages. For the government, proposing new regulations must also accompany a real, good-faith change in the permissive policies currently running the immigration system. It cannot just be the rules that change governing employers. The government itself must prioritize enforcement by changing how it governs staff who adjudicate benefit applications. This includes implementing policies that prioritize the accuracy of decisions rather than speed. Rules are only as effective as the enforcement of them. These new rules will suffer the same fate as the old unless a lot more change is gonna come. 

Take Action

Your voice counts! Let your Member of Congress know where you stand on immigration issues through the Action Board. Not a NumbersUSA member? Sign up here to get started.

Action Board

Donate Today!

NumbersUSA is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that relies on your donations to works toward sensible immigration policies. NumbersUSA Education & Research Foundation is recognized by America's Best Charities as one of the top 3% of well-run charities.


Immigration Grade Cards

NumbersUSA provides the only comprehensive immigration grade cards. See how your member of Congress’ rates and find grades going back to the 104th Congress (1995-97).

Read More