The Corner

Economy & Business

Let Them Eat H-2B Visas

On the home page Elaina Plott has a behind-the-scenes look at how the increase in H-2B guestworker visas ended up in the omnibus spending bill. The provision potentially could quadruple the number of these visas for non-agricultural “seasonal” (up to 10 months per year) workers, but will more likely “only” double them.

Supporters of the increase say lawmakers should have known it was in there because the Appropriations Committee had already slipped it into the Homeland Security appropriations bill last summer. Putting aside the fact that the visa increase wasn’t even mentioned in the committee’s summary of the DHS funding bill and that Senate appropriations chairman Thad Cochran had assured Jeff Sessions that the provision wouldn’t be in the omnibus, it’s worth asking: Why was a guestworker visa increase put into an appropriations bill in the first place? Because the industry lobbyists pushing the measure knew they couldn’t get it passed any other way. It was pure donor service from the get-go.

But more important than the political machinations behind this latest example of corporate welfare is the policy question: why import more unskilled guestworkers at all? Paul Ryan and Steve Scalise justified the increase by claiming a labor shortage.

My colleague Steve Camarota looked for evidence of such a labor shortage in the wage data. He didn’t find any.

If there really were a labor shortage, wages should be rising as employers try to recruit and retain staff. In fact, most of the top H-2B occupations show a decline in real wages from 2007 to 2014. Even the occupation that did best – maids and housekeepers – on average saw their weekly earnings rise by a mere $2 each year, for a total seven-year earnings increase of 4.1 percent. Cooks, on the other hand, saw their wages drop 4.4 percent over the seven-year period; security guards, down 6.1 percent; and hotel, motel & resort desk clerks, down 7 percent.

Now, a tight labor market is the best social policy, so we should welcome increased wages for less-educated workers, rather than try to short-circuit such increases with surges of foreign workers. But even if you think that higher incomes for the poor are a bad thing, current immigration policy is taking care of that problem just fine – why add to it? 

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