The H-2B guest worker visa program was authorized by Congress in 1986 to help U.S. employers meet seasonal demand for non-agricultural labor. Under the program, employers apply to hire foreign guest workers on a temporary basis to fill seasonal positions where local workers are not available. The program has grown rapidly in recent years, with the number of H-2B visas issued jumping 38 percent, from 69,684 to approximately 96,000, between 2015 and 2019.
The H-2B program was intended to meet seasonal workforce demands without displacing available U.S. workers and to provide good short-term employment for guest workers eager to provide for their families. Unfortunately, the program is failing on both fronts. First, employers have clearly found ways to exploit the program to outsource jobs even when local workers are available. The local recruitment efforts required by the program are minimal, and it is easy for employers to circumvent the requirement that they give preference to U.S. workers. Second, some employers evidently use their disproportionate power to exploit vulnerable migrant workers.
In a new report, "Outsourced at Our Expense: The High Cost of Construction Industry Reliance on H-2B Guest Worker Visas" we find that the H-2B program has failed both migrant workers and local communities. The report documents the high cost of the construction industry's reliance on the H-2B visa program in North Dakota. We estimate that use of H-2B visas will have cost the state nearly 2,500 construction jobs and $85 million in lost economic activity by the end 2020, compared to use of local labor, with the biggest impacts coming in recent years.
Responsibility for the program's failures rests not with migrant workers who seek to better their lives, but with Congress and the Federal agencies responsible for oversight, and with employers that seem to prefer a captive foreign workforce to recruiting local workers. The report clearly shows the need for reform of the H-2B program at the Federal level, and for North Dakota's civic leaders and construction industry to prioritize local workforce development and local hiring.