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U.S. Hits Cap on Temporary Work Visas As Employers Seek 11 Million Workers

Newsweek logo Newsweek 6/8/2022 Kaitlin Lewis
A Now Hiring sign at a Dunkin' restaurant on September 21, 2021 in Hallandale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) © Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images A Now Hiring sign at a Dunkin' restaurant on September 21, 2021 in Hallandale, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on May 18 the availability of 35,000 additional H-2B visas, or temporary nonagricultural worker visas, for businesses "that are suffering or will suffer impending irreparable harm" without the ability to hire non-citizen workers.

On May 25, just one week later, USCIS announced it had reached its cap for visas designated for returning H-2B workers, which make up a majority of the total number of additional visas. USCIS also announced that it was still accepting temporary worker visas allocated to citizens of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti.

The additional H2-B visas, which were allotted in a joint temporary ruling by the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), were announced in response to an unprecedented labor shortage in the workforce, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting 11.4 million job openings in April.

"These additional H-2B visas will help employers meet the demand for seasonal workers at this most critical time when there is a serious labor shortage," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in the May announcement.

The USCIS first announced in March that the additional visas were forthcoming, a few months after 20,000 additional visas were allocated for the first half of the fiscal year. Of the 35,000 visas made available in May, 23,500 were designated for returning workers, or workers who have received an H-2B in the past three years. The remaining 11,500 visas have been reserved for citizens from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Vice President of Immigration Policy Jon Baselice praised DHS at the time for its part in the initial offering, saying the additional visas would be welcomed by "seasonal businesses across the country."

"It is vital that DHS make these visas available as soon as possible, as these workers are urgently needed to fill critical workforce shortages across a host of industries," he told reporters on March 31.

While additional H-2B visas make a difference for struggling businesses, Baselice told Newsweek that more needs to be done to address the U.S. worker shortage.

"Seasonal employers are thankful for the additional H-2B visas," Baselice said, "but legislative reform is needed to better reflect economic reality, including a permanent raising of the annual H-2B quota."

Currently, Congress has set the annual cap for H-2B visas at 66,000. In 2022, the DHS and the DOL made an additional 55,000 visas available.

In addition, H-2B visas are only available to employers who are searching to fill temporary or seasonal roles, and an employer must be able to prove that there are not enough willing or available U.S. citizens to fill the positions.

Other officials have also called for legislative immigration reform to address the labor shortage. At the 2023 Fiscal Year Budget Request for the Department of Labor on May 17, Secretary Marty Walsh told the House Committee on Appropriations that comprehensive immigration reform is necessary for the U.S. 'to move forward as a country.'"

"We need to figure out some immigration laws and get some reform," Walsh told the committee. "Not H-2B visas, H-2A visas, not those visas. Those aren't immigration. We need real immigration reform in this country for a pathway to citizenship."

But he held out little hope for such reform.

"Now, I know that I'm speaking to Congress, and we could do something about it," Walsh added. "I know nothing's going to happen about it — I'll be completely honest with you — and I think it's really unfortunate."

The Chamber of Commerce also included immigration reform in the policy solutions developed by its America Works Initiative. In its America Works Agenda published in September 2021, the Chamber called for immediate action from state and federal officials to make changes not only to the temporary visa program but employment-based immigration as well.

"We hear from businesses every day that the worker shortage is their top challenge, and it's impacting the country's ability to ease supply chain disruptions, get inflation under control and continue our economic recovery," U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley said on May 16. "It's past time for Congress to act on solutions like modernizing our broken immigration system and helping expand affordable childcare options to help fill our 11.5 million open jobs."

The USCIS told Newsweek that the agency has taken several steps over the last several months to address the labor shortage beyond temporary worker visas, including implementing procedures to expedite work permits for health care and childcare workers, and increasing the extension on certain work permits for noncitizens by 360 days.

"USCIS will continue to monitor employment-related issues, receive stakeholder feedback and consider recommendations, assess various options in coordination with DHS, and communicate any changes we make across multiple platforms to ensure the public is fully informed of the steps the agency is prepared to take," the agency said in statement sent to Newsweek.

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