New GOP Push to Suspend Guest Worker Programs Could Hurt Industries That Rely on Nonagricultural Workers, Advocates Say

Guest workers
Veronica Ramirez Rangel (L) and Aida Rubio (R) join other guest workers picking hundreds of pounds of crabs at a crab facility on July 22, 2010, in Fishing Creek, MD. ROD LAMKEY JR/AFP/Getty

A renewed push by Republicans to suspend guest workers coming into the country would hurt the economy, including industries that rely on nonagricultural workers, immigrant advocacy organizations and groups that represent guest workers told Newsweek.

Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Josh Hawley of Missouri sent a letter to the president Thursday that called for a suspension of all new guest worker visas for 60 days and of certain categories of guest worker visas for a year "or until unemployment has returned to normal levels."

But, advocacy groups told Newsweek, the move is likely politically motivated to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to advance an item on the conservative agenda to make temporary restrictions on accepting new guest workers for most types of visas permanent.

"When you set up these 'temporary pauses' you are basically giving yourself an easy on ramp to just reauthorize them and make these horrific ideas permanent," said Alida Garcia, vice president of advocacy for FWD.us, a group founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. "They are trying to give Stephen Miller space to expand his executive order and he has said he intends to push these for the long haul."

Stephen Miller, a senior advisor to the president, has advocated for strict immigration policies.

The letter from the senators comes after Trump suspended most immigrant visas for 60 days as part of plans to curtail the coronavirus outbreak. Trump's move was met with some criticism on the right from influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson for not going far enough to protect American workers.

The letter, however, represents an official push by Republican senators to press the president further."Our guest worker programs—which were outside the scope of that order—remain a serious threat to the U.S. labor market's recovery," the senators wrote.

In the wake of 33 million Americans who had a job in early February, now finding themselves unemployed and businesses suffering, Bryan Lanza, an advisor to the Trump campaign in 2016 and the transition, told Newsweek that one thing companies will identify is cutting costs, and the easiest way to do so is through cheap, foreign labor.

"If you look after World War II when the U.S. built the middle class, one of the key factors, if you look at the data, was a very restrictive immigration system because economists knew that a tight labor pool would drive up wages," he told Newsweek. "So when you look at that, yes you have these hardliners talking about this, but you also have to understand the math behind it as well."

The senators' plan for the next year includes cutting H-2B nonagricultural seasonal workers, specialty occupation workers, a program that provides an extension of foreign student visas after graduation, and the immigrant visa program, which allows foreigners and their families to become permanent residents in exchange for investment that creates jobs for Americans.

Advocates who spoke with Newsweek said that the problem with carving out an exception for agricultural workers but targeting the rest of guest workers, is that those with H-2B nonagricultural visas for example, include seafood processors in Louisiana, and meatpackers in places like Iowa. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) estimates that 80 percent of meatpacking plant workers are undocumented workers or refugees, many of whom would be directly impacted by the Republican plan.

Saket Soni, the executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, said that for an employer to bring in a guest-worker they must attest to a labor shortage, calling into question whether the lawmaker's goals are simply to go after guest workers indefinitely, even after the crisis has passed.

"The premise for a guest worker is that there is a labor shortage at that time in that industry," he told Newsweek. "What Cotton and Cruz are doing is act one in the book that will be used instead of solving for unemployment, to demagogue the immigrant issue.