Colorado lawmakers united on work visas but H-2B visas remain entangled in immigration debate
Elimination of the returning worker exemption in 2015 has taken away a reliable source of seasonal workers
There are very few issues that unite all nine members of Colorado’s congressional delegation (see CORE Act, impeachment), but providing cap relief and returning worker exemptions for temporary low-skilled laborers under the federal H-2B visa program is one of them.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow led the recent charge on a letter to U.S. Senate and House leadership requesting “significant cap relief for the H-2B visa program in any final year-end appropriations package or continuing resolution.”
“Colorado is one of the heaviest users of the H-2B program, and our economy depends on predictable seasonal jobs,” Gardner’s office wrote in a recent statement to the Vail Daily. “I’ve worked alongside my colleagues in Congress to provide H-2B cap relief to help local businesses struggling to fill these seasonal, temporary job openings, and I will continue pushing to find bipartisan legislative solutions.”
Congress has capped the overall number of H-2B visas — commonly used to hire foreign nationals for seasonal landscaping, construction and hospitality jobs — at 66,000 per fiscal year. That breaks down to 33,000 for the first half of the year (Oct. 1 to March 31) and 33,000 for the second half of the year (April 1 to Sept. 30) — across the entire country.
Under a temporary rule, another 30,000 visas were allowed for returning workers through the end of fiscal 2019, but officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are no longer accepting petitions for those visas. And businesses throughout the Vail Valley have complained of lengthy processing delays and arbitrary rulings on whether temporary workers are needed.
A reliable workforce disappears
The biggest problem for employers has been the elimination of the returning worker exemption in 2015 — a provision that streamlined the six-month return of seasonal workers year in and year out for nearly 20 years.
“Hundreds of Colorado businesses depend on the H-2B visa program to fill seasonal and other jobs,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s office told the Vail Daily in a statement over the summer. “These workers are vital to local economies across the state, but the current number of H-2B visas fails to meet our temporary workforce needs. The administration should conduct an audit and increase the statutory cap to allow businesses to tap into the workforce they need.”
Addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the recent letter was signed by Colorado’s Gardner, Bennet, Crow, Democratic U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter and Republican Reps. Scott Tipton, Doug Lamborn and Ken Buck.
Neguse and Tipton both represent portions of Eagle County — a rural resort area that in the past has relied heavily on temporary workers, mostly from Mexico.
“Colorado is home to thousands of seasonal businesses and workers across a wide range of industries including landscaping, hospitality, ski resorts, amusement parks, forestry, golf courses and more,” the letter reads. “With Colorado’s statewide unemployment below 3%, businesses in our state are facing serious hiring challenges. The H-2B program is critical for filling such workforce gaps across all four corners of Colorado.”
National issue creates a local problem
Eagle County’s unemployment rate is even lower than the national average, but realistically getting something done in Washington — especially on work visas for foreign nationals or immigration in general — will likely be highly problematic during budget negotiations that are sure to be overshadowed by the ongoing impeachment inquiry facing President Donald Trump.
The federal government will shut down on Nov. 22 if a budget deal founders and some in Washington fear that’s exactly where the country is headed. Earlier this year when Glen Ellison of Ceres Landcare in Eagle was in D.C., lobbying for H-2B visa relief, the federal government was embroiled in the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
“I got a lot of lip service about how terrible our position is right now and that we can’t do this and we can’t do that,” Ellison said during a Bennet office listening session in Avon last July. “And Sen. Bennett made reference to the fact … that our government is such a mess right now that we can’t even bring up the topic of immigration on the floor without it becoming a battle zone. How are we ever going to get H-2B to the floor?”
Ellison appreciated Bennet’s honesty, but after bringing 35 temporary workers up from Mexico for nearly 20 years — before losing most of those workers in recent years — he says his company is willing to do whatever it takes to rectify the situation.
“These people are more than employees of Ceres,” Ellison said, gesturing to a roomful of workers. “They are like family to me, to us. And it’s been devastating, not just for me and this company, but to all of them as well … the years that these folks have put in, the loyalty, the dedication to this company, and that our government just pulls the rug out from under us makes me sick.”
Ceres Landcare’s Nicole Heredia, who administers H-2B visas for the company, said the removal of the returning worker exemption has had the most detrimental impact on the program. Since then, she said, the H-2B program that used to work so well has been embroiled in the broader immigration debate and tacked on as an afterthought in omnibus spending bills.
“H-2B tends to get lumped in with a lot of other issues, and there’s not an H-2B bill. It’s visa and immigration,” Heredia said. “Although there’s a huge need for them in the country, H-2B’s get lumped together with a lot of the hot topic issues that aren’t going to get solved.”
Bennet was part of the Gang of Eight in the Senate that in 2013 passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act by a 68-32 margin, with 14 Republicans voting in favor of the bill. It included an expanded new visa program for lesser-skilled workers, but the legislation was blocked in the U.S. House by Speaker John Boehner.
“[Sen. Bennet] strongly believes that we need to fix our broken system, and while he would support steps, such as passing a DREAM Act, he believes a comprehensive package that provides a pathway to citizenship, protects our borders, reforms our visa programs in a smart and effectual way, and values our proud tradition as a nation of immigrants is the best way to achieve true reform,” Bennet spokeswoman Courtney Gidner said in an email statement.