The business-friendly proposal is being pushed amid a stalled effort to more broadly overhaul immigration laws.
By ANITA KUMAR
02/19/2020 06:28 PM EST
The White House can’t get its broad immigration proposal moving, so officials are pursuing a narrow deal that would please the business community but might go against the president’s campaign promise to reduce overall immigration.
In recent months, the administration has been in talks with senators about legislation that would create new categories of temporary worker visas or lengthen the allotted stays for those workers, among other possible changes, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
A White House official confirmed the ongoing negotiations on the guest worker proposal and said the effort is an attempt to generate action on a smaller immigration proposal after a larger one stalled and won few adherents.
“We’ve also been listening to stakeholders,” the official said. “We’ve also developed points of view on what the temporary system should look like.”
A broadening of temporary worker visas is a policy change the business community has long sought, arguing companies in industries like construction and agriculture can’t hire enough workers to meet demand. But immigration activists seeking to reduce migration worry such changes would raise the number of foreigners coming to the U.S.
Trump has repeatedly vowed to curb immigration.
“Our country is full,” Trump warned in April, standing at the southern border in California.
A border crossing on the southern border. | Bobbie DeHerrera/Getty Images
“I can’t wrap my head around why some Republican senators and administration officials are urging President Trump to embrace a guest worker expansion in an election year, or even worse — an agriculture amnesty bill drafted by an impeachment manager,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to reduce the number of immigrants in the country.
The recent talks began after the House passed a bill focused on changes to the agricultural guest worker program, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who served as one of the House impeachment managers in Trump’s Senate trial.
The guest worker negotiations are separate from ongoing, more expansive talks about a 600-page draft bill that would grant permanent status to more high-skilled, well-educated immigrants while reducing the number for those who enter the U.S. based on family ties. Trump unveiled the contours of that proposal in May but has failed to garner support for the offer.
Since then, Trump has decided a narrow deal to bolster various industries like agriculture — which has been coping with a shortage of workers and the fallout from Trump’s trade wars — could be worthwhile even if it risks alienating some in his base, said one of the sources, who has spoken to the White House about the issue.
Talks about the guest worker proposal have, at times, touched on whether to also offer permanent legal status to the 800,000 Dreamers — immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children — according to two of the people familiar with the negotiations. But it’s unclear whether any deal would include language addressing Dreamers, those people said.
Immigrant advocates say the administration is not sincere in its efforts to expand guest worker visas or to provide permanent legal status for Dreamers.
“They’re not going to get behind something,” one advocate said.
Trump campaigned on ending the Obama-era program that gave temporary protections to Dreamers, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In 2017, he tried to make good on his promise to halt the 5-year-old program. But two federal courts ordered him to keep it going until the Supreme Court weighed in, and it is likely to do so this summer.
Trump tried to strike an ambitious deal with Democrats that would have protected Dreamers in exchange for his immigration priorities, such as money for a southern border wall. But that effort quickly died in Congress amid a backlash from immigration hawks, who blasted it for protecting immigrants in the United States illegally.
Separately, business groups have pushed the Trump administration to create more temporary and permanent slots for immigrants coming to the U.S., saying companies have struggled to fill jobs as the unemployment rate has fallen.
Associated Builders and Contractors estimated that 440,000 workers were needed in 2019 alone to meet the construction backlog. The organization has urged the White House and Congress to expand guest worker programs, including creating a visa for less-skilled workers to do year-round nonfarm work.
“It is critical a market-driven visa program for guest workers is established to meaningfully impact the U.S. workforce shortage and allow the construction industry to thrive,” said Kristen Swearingen, the group’s vice president of legislative and political affairs.
The number of immigrants with temporary visas has steadily increased during Trump’s presidency, reaching 925,000 in 2018, according to the Migration Policy Institute. While there is no cap for the total number of temporary workers, there are annual limits on some of the more than dozen visa categories. Changes to the program could include adding new categories of visas, adding new occupations and lengthening the allotted stays.
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The Trump administration has already raised the number of nonagricultural seasonal workers — such as crab pickers and life guards — the U.S. brings in each year. Last year, it increased the caps by 30,000 for a total of 96,000.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has pushed for changes of the guest worker programs, has been involved in the talks, according to the four people. Perdue senior adviser Kristi Boswell was dispatched to the White House to work on immigration. The Department of Agriculture didn’t respond to request for comment.
The bill that passed in the House would ease restrictions on hiring agricultural workers, including providing legal status and a path to citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who received temporary visas. The industry would be required to verify the legal status of the employee. Thirty-four Republicans voted for the bill.
The Trump administration prefers provisions in a previously unsuccessful bill that would allow guest worker programs to address both seasonal and year-round jobs and create visas that would allow stays of 36 months.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, both of whom have supported an increase in temporary visas, are leading the efforts in the Senate, according to the four people. Tillis pushed a provision that was added to a spending package in 2018 that allowed the cap to be raised on nonagricultural workers despite criticism from conservatives. Neither office responded to a request for comment.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) sent a letter to Graham this week urging him not to take up any language that focuses on “amnesty.”
“You know this issue — and the politics — better than most,” he wrote. “It would be a fool’s errand to pass such legislation which would directly conflict with the core campaign promises of President Trump to regain control of our border and immigration system.”
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