Washington, DC – This morning, Congressman Bill Keating attended a full hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security with testimony from Secretary John Kelly on the Department of Homeland Security Reauthorization and FY2018 Budget Proposal.
During an exchange with Congressman Keating, who asked about the stalled H-2B program, Secretary Kelly took the opposite interpretation of the very language and intent of the H-2B provision included in the FY 2017 spending bill signed into law in May.
The May 2017 spending bill included a provision that explicitly gives the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to increase the number of H-2B visas from 66,000 up to approximately 129,000.
When asked by Congressman Keating about lifting the 66,000 cap for returning workers, Secretary Kelly responded that his interpretation of the H-2B provision was that the cap wasn’t to be raised: “What I took from that was the sense of the Congress was not to expand it, because if it was that important, the Congress would have authorized 129,000.”
‘The H-2B provision in the spending bill was clear,” said Congressman Keating. “It is concerning that Secretary Kelly and the Department could interpret it to mean that Congress did not want to increase the number of H-2B workers when the provision specifically gave him the authority to do just that. This is not a trivial issue, this is a matter of many seasonal, small businesses being able to open in time for their high season. The revenues made now are what keep these businesses afloat.”
Congressman Keating has seen first-hand the benefits of exempting returning workers from the H-2B visa cap. Congress has exempted returning workers in four out of the last eleven years. The 129,000 figure represents the highest number of visas issued during the four years in which returning workers were exempt from the cap.
As Massachusetts businesses are all too familiar, the visa cap was hit in March of this year – leaving employers without staff and causing businesses to open short-handed, if at all.
A transcript of this morning’s exchange can be found below:
Rep. Keating: …In the omnibus legislative budget, you were given personal discretion over H-2B visas and this is a program, as most of us know, is really related to small businesses. Every day in my district, and other districts around the country, the delay in filling those needed positions is just costing us revenues that could be helpful in fulfilling some of the things that are being cut right now. In our area, there will be local workers that will not have jobs because – particularly people in the hospitality area – they are not opening at all during weeks because unless you’re a compliment, you just can’t do it. I have had conferences with legal staff, and with your office and the acting secretary in that regard that is dealing with that, Acting Director McCament. He and I discussed using the returning worker cap just being removed. Now this is nothing new, this is something that four of the last eleven years has been utilized to have those people there. It eliminates some of the interviews. These people hit the ground running. And it’s important right now in our country that we are not hurting our economy for something that can be easily done administratively. So, I want to emphasize and ask you, when do you think you’d be able to start that process. Its overdue and every day is costing us money in this country.
Secretary Kelly: First of all Congressman, this is kind of a new topic for me. I would…when I originally saw it, 66,000 I think is what was authorized and then I think I have…
Rep. Keating: Discretion to 129,000.
Secretary Kelly: …129,000. What I took from that was the sense of the Congress was not to expand it, because if it was that important, the Congress would have authorized 129,000. With that said, we are working with Labor, I have just as many- very large number of members of Congress saying don’t expand it because it means American jobs, the unions, and all the rest of it. I’m open…
Rep. Keating: If I could interrupt.
Secretary Kelly: Sure.
Rep. Keating: Mr. Secretary, there’s a huge bipartisan support for this, and may I respectfully say there’s no US jobs lost in this respect. These are jobs that frankly can’t be filled. And I can tell you, as you’re familiar with your own personal experience around the Boston area, the wages are well paid for in that area, it’s not a question of not meeting – in fact, in my area they exceed the average wages for those jobs. So, I’m glad you mentioned that. There’s no security interest. These are returning workers, some of them have been coming back and forth for twenty years. Those of us on the committee are well aware that certain visas, where people overstay those visas and that’s a matter of concern for you and for all of us. However, these people go back. They want to go back. And they have a history of going back. And coming forward, as I said, some of them for decades working in the same company, the same businesses. So this is something I’m glad with your feedback because I hope I can alleviate that concern and get this moving as quickly as possible.