Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress on Wednesday she will make a decision “soon” on whether to approve tens of thousands of additional visas for temporary foreign workers, but signaled a willingness to allow more workers.
Her verdict is being closely watched by those on all sides of the immigration debate who are looking for signals as to how she will approach the thorny issue of guest-workers, which some businesses say they need in order to keep their doors open, but some workers-rights advocates say push Americans out of jobs.
Lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia told Ms. Nielsen they have crab-picking plants that will have to shutter unless they can get foreign workers to pick the meat.
Ms. Nielsen said she was sympathetic to concerns that businesses have to have foreign workers.
“The intent here is not to put American businesses out of business. That can’t possibly be the goal,” she told a House subcommittee during a hearing on the Homeland Security budget.
The H-2B visa program, which covers non-agricultural seasonal workers such as winter resort employees, landscapers and seafood processing plants, has become a proxy for the broader fight over work visas and the use of foreign workers.
The law calls for 66,000 visas to be doled out each year, with half of those going for the winter season and half for the summer.
Businesses say that’s far too few, but Congress has been unable to raise the cap, instead settling on a compromise that punts the decision to the Homeland Security secretary.
Last year, then-Secretary John F. Kelly approved 15,000 additional visas, but only 13,500 were actually claimed.
Mr. Kelly at the time berated Congress for ducking responsibility, and told lawmakers to make the decision themselves. They refused, instead sending the matter right back to the department this year, where Ms. Nielsen, Mr. Kelly’s former top aide, is now in charge.
She, too, said Congress has the expertise and should be making these kinds of decisions.
But she said she will be consulting with the Labor Department this week and will give Congress a timeline for her decision by Friday.
“The intent is to make a decision soon,” she said.
The Labor Department has not answered requests for comment about its recommendations.
Business groups say the department certified nearly 100,000 applications for H-2B visas for the summer season, or about three times the 33,000 slots available. The new law Congress passed last month would let Homeland Security raise the 33,000 cap to more than 96,000.
Mr. Kelly last year took months to make a decision, and only approved about a quarter of those visas, saying that the right level based on the business needs.
Ms. Nielsen did not tip her hand about a number for this year, but did praise her predecessor’s approach.
Lawmakers told her to speed up the decision.
“This is not a new thing,” said Rep. Scott Taylor, a Virginia Republican who said seafood plans in his district need workers. “It’s actually hurting American jobs.”
© Copyright (c) 2018 News World Communications, Inc.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.