Senators Spar Over |Contested Visa Program

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Two Republican senators split Wednesday over the value of a program that allows businesses to hire foreign workers when they can’t find Americans to fill open jobs.
     Called the H2B visa, the program lets a maximum of 66,000 foreign workers to come into the country each year to fill seasonal demand for U.S. businesses, provided the businesses certify they searched for a domestic worker to fill the position first.
     Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., slammed the program Wednesday afternoon, arguing it brings down wages for Americans and allows foreign workers to “abscond” from their jobs to live in the country illegally. He blamed “special interests” for falsely claiming an American worker shortage in order to keep the program alive or even raise its cap on the number of workers it allows in.
     “These statistics make clear that there is simply not a shortage of American workers but rather there is a shortage of Americans with jobs to work,” Sessions said. “Too few have jobs.”
     But Sessions’ colleague, North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, defended the program at Wednesday afternoon’s hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest.
     Pointing to fisherman trolling the rural North Carolina coast and businesses in remote areas in the eastern part of the state, Tillis said the H2B program keeps businesses afloat when they are not close to unemployed American workers. While he acknowledged there are concerns about enforcement of some of the program’s rules, he said it allows businesses to expand and gives greater security to the other, domestic workers they employ.
     “In every case you can fraud and abuse, you can find examples where maybe the wages are not consistent with what a prevailing wage should be,” Tillis said. “But this discussion needs to be couched in if you’re willing to kill American jobs. Because I absolutely think that it will happen. And all we have to do is have people prevail and we’ll see it happen.”
     Of the five witnesses who testified before the committee, which Sessions chairs, four were mostly in Sessions’ camp. Some were concerned about the exploitation that the H2B program can cause as a result of people being reliant on their employers for their status in the country.
     “It is my experience that when guest workers stand up for their rights they are almost always subject to some form of retaliation,” Meredith Steward, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the committee.
     Others echoed Sessions’ skepticism that businesses are having a hard time finding American workers to fill positions.
     “The idea that these are jobs Americans don’t do is absurd,” said Steven Camarota, director of research with the Center for Immigration Studies.
     Sessions also suggested the program is preventing teenagers and other young workers from getting valuable experience with low-skilled jobs.
     But Stephen Bronars, a partner with Edgeworth Economics, backed Tillis’ perspective throughout the hearing. With at most 66,000 workers in the country in a given year, the program is simply too small to have a measurable impact on wages or American workers, he said.
     Furthermore, changing the program will not solve wage stagnation or underemployment, according to Bronars.
     “This program is a very small, narrow-tailored program, it’s not going to help solve all these problems,” Bronars said at the hearing.
     Robert Johnson, a representative of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, agreed with Tillis. Wearing a large, bright yellow sticker that read “H2B Workers Save US Workers Jobs,” Johnson said the H2B program is vital for carnivals and fairs, which have trouble attracting American workers because of their travel schedules and weekend work hours.
     “Without this labor we would be in a world of hurt,” Johnson said.

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