House panel approves H-2B returning worker exemption

Updated Jun 24, 2016

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday adopted an amendment that would extend for one year the exemption of returning H-2B workers from the program’s annual cap on temporary foreign worker visas.

While representatives of the green industry’s two main trade groups were delighted by Wednesday’s action, both cautioned that opponents of the exemption could succeed in plucking it out later in the budget process.

The House Appropriations Committee passed the amendment on a voice vote Wednesday afternoon.The House Appropriations Committee passed the amendment on a voice vote Wednesday afternoon.

“Today’s vote is the first leg in a long journey,” said Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP).

Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, called Wednesday’s vote “a critical step,” but whether it will be enough to sustain the returning worker exemption for another fiscal year remains uncertain.

The one-year extension of the H-2B returning worker exemption was offered as an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security’s budget by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland. Although several committee members argued strongly against the amendment, it was ultimately adopted on a voice vote.

NALP and AmericanHort consider the H-2B program crucial to the green industry’s success. Under the program, foreign workers come to the United States as “non-immigrants” for a period of 10 months to work in certain industries, including landscaping, hotels and resorts, seafood processing and others. (H-2B is separate from the migrant farmworker program.)

The landscaping industry is by far the largest employer of H-2B workers. Current law limits the number of H-2B visas to 66,000 a year.

The exemption from the cap of “returning workers” – that is, workers who received an H-2B visa during any of the past three fiscal years – was successfully inserted into the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress in December 2015. The one-year exemption will expire Sept. 30.

Both NALP’s Mendelsohn and AmericanHort’s Regelbrugge said any extension of the returning worker exemption – while essentially doomed if Wednesday’s vote had gone the other way – will now depend on how the budget process plays out in the coming months.

“The victory today is really significant,” Regelbrugge said, “because, had we lost today … well, game over. Plus, this is now a policy that has been upheld by Congress” in light of the Appropriations Committee’s approval.

Mendelsohn agreed that without Wednesday’s vote, “there was really no chance” of extending the exemption. “We’re very pleased by today’s action, but we recognize we still have work to do,” he said.

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