After a stark reminder this week of just how politically charged immigration issues can be, the principal organizations that lobby for landscapers, growers and nurseries are focused on a June 14 meeting of the House Appropriations Committee.
The committee is expected to take up next year’s budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at Tuesday’s meeting. Last year, the House panel included the H-2B returning worker exemption as a rider on the DHS budget bill, and both the National Association of Landscape Professionals and AmericanHort will be pushing hard to preserve the exemption in fiscal 2017.
The policy rider provided that all foreign workers who had held an H-2B visa during any of the past three fiscal years would not count toward the law’s annual cap on the total number of visas allowed – currently set at 66,000. The landscaping industry typically is among the largest employers of seasonal foreign workers under the H-2B program. (The H-2B program is separate from federal laws related to seasonal farm workers.)
Keeping the returning worker exemption in place will be especially challenging in an election year.
Opposition to foreign worker programs was on full view earlier this week in a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest. Chaired by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, a longtime opponent of the H-2B program, the hearing was titled “The H-2B Temporary Foreign Worker Program: Examining the Effects on Americans’ Job Opportunities and Wages.”
In a news release after the hearing, AmericanHort noted that nearly all of the witnesses Sessions invited to testify at the hearing “presented a hostile picture of the program as a threat to American workers and wages.”
Just the opposite is true, according to research cited by AmericanHort and the National Association of Landscape Professionals in written testimony submitted to the subcommittee. Referring to an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) study as well as “the experience of our individual members,” the trade organizations testified that every H-2B worker creates or sustains 4.64 American jobs on average.
The AEI study concluded that the H-2B program “leads to significant employment gains for U.S. natives.”
The landscaping lobby has long maintained that the H-2B program is vital because too few American workers are willing to accept seasonal employment in the industry. According to the H-2B Workforce Coalition, “Small businesses that use the program would gladly avoid all the costs and hassles associated with the program if they could find enough American workers.”
Sessions took aim at that contention in his opening statement at this week’s hearing: “Not only are there willing Americans,” he said, “but they are not in short supply.”
That’s just not so, according to the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ vice president of government relations, Paul Mendelsohn. “Without a doubt,” he said in an earlier interview with TLC, “the landscape professionals we represent would hire American workers for these jobs if they could get them and keep them.”
While the outcome of this fight won’t be clear for months, the coming weeks may provide a good indication of the returning worker exemption’s prospects. If the Appropriations Committee refuses to include the exemption in the DHS budget bill, it may well be gone for good.
David Rountree is the editor of Total Landscape Care.