Sen. David Perdue has long argued that “strained working-class Americans” face an uneven playing field as they are forced to compete with “a steady supply of cheap, unskilled” immigrant labor.
But the Georgia Republican has sung a different tune in private messages to the Trump administration. The lawmaker contacted the Department of Homeland Security and Labor Department in February, urging officials to increase the flow of visas offered to temporary migrant workers to be employed in low wage, nonagricultural jobs.
“I am writing to request that you exercise authority delegated to you,” wrote Perdue, citing the statute that governs foreign work visas, “to increase the numerical limitation on H-2B visas in order to provide relief to American businesses.”
Despite increasing campaign rhetoric by leading Republicans about the downward impact on wages posed by some forms of immigration, many lawmakers are quietly helping business interests lobby for greater access to a pool of low-wage foreign workers.
The Intercept, through a records request, obtained a number of recent requests by GOP lawmakers to the Trump administration. The legislative letters echo business demands that the government raise the number of available H-2B visas for employers to bring in migrant workers.
North Carolina Republican Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, along with the GOP House delegation from North Carolina, requested that the administration “expeditiously release all 64,716 H-2B visas. House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., wrote “on behalf of business” that her state needed emergency “H-2B cap relief.” Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, and Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., wrote similar letters earlier this year. None of the lawmakers’ offices responded to a request for comment.
The letters came a time of increasing political pressure to bring cheap labor into the country. The Wall Street Journal reported on a broad bipartisan effort in January to increase the number of H-2B visas available for employers. Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., signed onto the push.
After these letters were sent and following a coalition lobbying effort by employers in the seafood, landscaping, construction, and food services industries, the Trump administration approved 35,000 additional seasonal work visas in March, bringing the total available this year to 101,000. Business interests also won expedited approval of H-2B visas. The State Department declared that the program is “essential to the economy” and waived in-person interviews for applicants. But the administration soon changed course, freezing the the flow of new visas as the economy deteriorated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The H-2B program has come under fire from organized labor and migrant worker civil rights organizations for rampant human rights violations. Across numerous workplaces, guest workers have reported sexual violence, imprisonment, physical abuse, starvation, wage theft, and conditions akin to slavery. Though the visa program is required to pay prevailing wages, employers routinely pay wages lower than those offered to Americans working the same jobs.
Not long ago, Perdue openly and sharply criticized migrant worker visas as an exploitative trap that harmed both American wages and foreign migrant workers. In 2017, Perdue cosigned a letter with Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., decrying rampant abuses in the H-2B program.
The lawmakers noted in the letter that “a large body of evidence suggests that our increasing reliance on the H-2B program cuts wages, pushes American workers out of jobs, and may, in some cases, discourage them from ever applying again. Indiscriminate increases in the number of H-2B workers will only exacerbate these problems.”
The letter noted that some employers “take advantage of H-2B workers’ unique vulnerabilities, which can result in human trafficking and labor abuse.” One labor investigator the Perdue letter cited found that “the way H-2 visas shackle workers to a single employer leaves them almost no leverage to demand better treatment.”
The H-2B program is designed to only be available when businesses cannot find Americans willing to take on jobs. But a growing body of research shows the application process can be gamed and that many employers in fact use H-2B to drag down wages for American workers.
Michael Cunningham, a former official with the Texas State Building and Construction Trades Council, has documented a number of abuses in the H-2B program.
“I have seen the misuse of construction and production occupations that adversely affects wages paid to guest workers,” wrote Cunningham in an email to The Intercept. “This is the way the employers get the cheapest wage possible that really was created to deter American workers from applying for these jobs.”
Cunningham described systemic problems that allow multibillion-dollar businesses to easily game the system for H-2B visas for work that could be offered to Americans. “Also concerning is the lack of enforcement by the Department of Labor,” wrote Cunningham. “They don’t have enough boots on the ground to monitor and enforce each employer to make sure they are in compliance.”
The migrant visa program has only grown in recent years. The Obama administration sharply lowered the number of H-2B visas provided to U.S. employers, below record highs in 2007 and 2008 during the previous administration. But the Trump administration has reversed that trend, increasingly expanding the number of visas over the last four years.
Advocates for business interests in Congress have agitated to raise the statutory cap on H-2B visas, coming close in 2018 to expanding the program from 66,000 to 114,000 visas. The administration has dutifully offered employers waivers to increase the number of H-2B beyond the annual cap.
But the growing economic crisis has forced a shift in the administration’s response. In June, President Donald Trump suspended a range of work visas programs. The decision was touted as a major intervention into the economy to save American jobs at risk during the global coronavirus pandemic. The executive order, in a deference to large employers, however, did not impact H-2B workers already in the country for the 2020 season.