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Joe Guzzardi: The Ever-Expanding Pool of Cheap Labor and the Case for Fewer Visas

Continuing to add foreign-born labor during the recession will only keep unemployment woefully high

The U.S. Customs and Immigration Services announced last week that 15 countries have been added to the list of those whose residents are eligible for H-2A and H-2B guest-worker visas. Prospective laborers from Barbados, Estonia, Fiji, Hungary, Kiribati, Latvia, Macedonia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu bring the total number of participating nations to 53.

This expanded USCIS list is more proof that legal entry into the United States is as harmful to limiting the nation’s growing population and alleviating America’s unemployment rate as illegal immigration.

Officially, the H-2A visa allows an unlimited number of temporary agricultural workers to come to the United States when growers anticipate a worker shortage. Unofficially, expanding the number of eligible employees increases growers’ cheap labor pool. The H-2B visa, capped at 66,000 annually and with 33,000 issued during the first part of each year, is issued to low-skilled, nonagricultural workers such as those in the tourism and hospitality industries and is also considered temporary.

The key word is “temporary,” something that applies to neither the H-2A nor the H-2B.

Consider for example the case of a hypothetical worker from an impoverished country such as Ecuador, El Salvador or Nicaragua, all on the USCIS approved list, who might eventually find his way to the United States on a legal, nonimmigrant H-2A work visa. What he’ll find when he gets to his job site is a low-paying, back-breaking employment that, if the wage were determined by market conditions, might pay a living salary. But since the growers determine his salary, it’s often minimum wage or occasionally even less.

Although the worker’s visa terms require him to return to his native country, the likelihood of him voluntarily going home to his desperate homeland is small. Currently, visa overstayers, those who simply vanish into the population at large when their time limits expire, totals 4 million to 6 million people.

In the case of H-2B visa applicants, plenty of Americans are available to work in the “tourism and hospitality” industry. Those jobs are commonly found at resort hotels, restaurants, ski lodges and beachfront hotels located in vacation paradises. Historically, those coveted jobs went to university students and post-graduates putting money aside for their advanced educations or high school kids saving for college.

Americans will eagerly work in hospitality. In 2008, Cape Cod employers who had typically recruited H-2B workers from Brazil and Jamaica worried that the annual quota would fill up before it could fully staff its businesses. Anticipating the worst, they placed a job fair ad in the local newspaper. More than 300 unemployed and underemployed Americans showed up every hour to interview. Before the day ended, candidates submitted hundreds of applications.

In this sustained period of 10 percent national unemployment, the federal government should reduce the numbers of nonimmigrant visas issued to give millions of jobless Americans a chance to get back on their feet.

According to the State Department’s Visa Office, nearly 1 million new temporary work permits were issued during the past 12 months. None of them, however, could be considered essential. During the same calendar-year period and consistent with the 1 million permits issued, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, foreign-born employment rose 4.1 percent while 1.4 million discouraged native Americans stopped looking for work.

As long as the policy of adding foreign-born labor during a recession remains in effect, and there’s no evidence that the Obama administration plans to end it, U.S. unemployment will remain painfully high.

— Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns — mostly about immigration and related social issues — since 1990 and is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS). After 25 years as an English as a Second Language teacher in the Lodi Unified School District, Guzzardi has retired to Pittsburgh. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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