Immigrant labor has always been a big topic for debate in the United States. While a large portion of the population is adamantly against immigrants (regardless of their legal status) being offered jobs in the U.S., the reality is that immigrant labor is the backbone of the American economy. Even though experts tend to agree that immigration is good for the economy, it creates jobs, increases innovation, and rises wages for all workers, there has always been a case against immigrants “stealing” American jobs. Lately, the interest on this topic has been fueled by the past election and the recent changes in immigration law, the latest example being the Department of Homeland Security announcing on July 17th their decision of releasing 15,000 new visas for guest workers.
At the heart of the argument against immigrant labor lies the assumption that the American workers have their eye on the same jobs as their immigrant counterparts, and therefore an increase on immigrant workers signifies fewer jobs for Americans. Usually, the pro-immigration part of the debate fights back arguing that immigrants often do the work Americans don’t want to do.
This table by the Economic Policy Institute shows the top 10 occupations for H-2B visa holders in the 2016 fiscal year. The H-2B program allows American employers to temporarily hire migrant workers in low-wage non-agricultural occupations when there are no US workers available for the job. The occupations shown on the table require hard work, long hours, and are often paid minimum-wage, which renders them unattractive to American workers, even low skill ones; but for immigrants who come from extreme poverty and hardship situations in their home countries a job offer like this represents the opportunity to improve their quality of life.
The problem, The New York Times writes, began when Congress, following the administration’s “America First” rhetoric, decided last December not to renew a provision that did not count workers who previously part of the program towards the cap of 66,000 visas, thus reducing the number of available H-2B visas to half its usual size. By March the summer quota had ran out, which left various American businesses without the seasonal workers upon which they depend. Later this year, Congress granted the government authority to increase the number of visas and almost two months later John F. Kelly, current Secretary of Homeland Security, announced he would be providing “temporary relief to American businesses in danger of suffering irreparable harm due to a lack of available temporary workers” by releasing 15,000 additional H-2B visas.
The White House’s decision to increase the annual cap for seasonal visas was predictably received with mixed reviews. For some, this decision has come too late since the summer season is over and many American businesses had to operate with reduced staff, the damage for them has been done. It has also been suggested that 15,000 new visas are not enough, not to mention it is too late for the people who were looking forward to their yearly income as seasonal workers. However, critics argue that there is not in fact a scarcity of American labor in the sections applying for H-2B visas, claiming that employers should raise their wages and expand their scouting area for American workers. Not only this, but guest workers programs have often been criticized for making the migrants susceptible to exploitation, robbery from their employers, and even human trafficking; according to the Economic Policy Institute, the loopholes in the H-2B program have allowed the employers to discriminate and underpay their workers.
The story then took an ironical turn when Trump businesses requested 76 of the new alloted H-2B visas only three days after the cap was lifted, showing that the President’s “America First” ideals do not go in sync with his company's business plan.
The great paradox of low-wage migrant labor in the United States is that it benefits those that are most adamantly against immigration. By antagonizing immigrants, labelling them as lazy, criminals, and accusing them of stealing jobs and opportunities from Americans, the environment necessary to discriminate and exploit them is created and even permitted by the law. Because most of this seasonal workers and their families depend upon this job, it is improbable that they would risk losing it despite of its unfairness, which further allows the discrimination to continue. Trump businesses did not make any efforts to hire American workers before looking to hire seasonal workers, this along with the fact that the main argument supporting the H-2B program is that businesses cannot afford to raise their wages in order to appeal to American workers perfectly reveals the flaws on the “America First” rhetoric.