Dozens of landscape contractors were among a large group in Washington this week to lobby for the H-2B visa program, under which non-immigrant foreign workers spend 10 months in the United States doing seasonal work. The landscaping industry is the largest user of the program – by far – but seafood, hotel and amusement park businesses also employ thousands of visiting workers during their busiest seasons.
The current lobbying effort is focused on a key provision of the current law that was put in place through an amendment to the omnibus budget bill that passed in December 2015. The amendment 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.
Landscapers, along with their allies in the fight, are pushing hard to keep the “returning foreign worker” provision in place next year, and they would like to see the exemption from the cap become permanent.
Opponents such as U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, are fighting to make sure the returning foreign worker provision disappears when the current fiscal year ends on Oct. 30.
In a May 13 letter to the chairman and vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sessions wrote: “It is my understanding that certain members of the Senate seek to make this ‘returning worker’ exemption permanent. Doing so would be a grave error.”
Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, said Friday he was encouraged by the reception members of NALP and other groups lobbying for H-2B received on Capitol Hill this week.
“It’s hard to gauge, of course, and we were focusing on the states that are using returning workers extensively,” he said, “but, in the meetings we participated in, they were receptive to the information we were providing and a number of them told us it was very helpful” in countering the arguments of anti-immigration groups.
Because any issue tied to immigration policy is controversial these days, Mendelsohn said, some of the congressional support for H-2B and the industries that rely on the program is bound to remain low key.
“It is important for us to stress that this is not an effort to avoid hiring American workers,” said Mendelsohn. “Without a doubt, the landscape professionals we represent would hire American workers for these jobs if they could get them and keep them.”
Unfortunately, he said, American workers hired in positions typically filled by visiting foreign workers “rarely stick to it for the long run.” To be able to run their businesses responsibly, Mendelsohn said, landscapers need to know they’ll have workers who will show up every day.
“Without that consistency, that dependability of your workforce, it’s impossible to plan for and fulfill your contracts,” he said. “H-2B is the second choice, not the primary choice, but it is critical to the success of our industry.”