Guest Workers in the Middle Between New, Conflicting Bills

This week, Senators Perdue, Young, Cornyn, Durbin, Coons, and Leahy introduced S. 3599, the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act, which seeks to enhance the healthcare workforce during the COVID-19 global pandemic by recapturing 40,000 unused immigrant visas for doctors (15,000) and nurses (25,000). That number sounds big, but in the context of needs and population, it only starts to address the need. Still, this bipartisan bill looks to strengthen the pool of healthcare workers that America will need through 2020, 2021 an likely 2022. 

And in the other corner, Senators Cotton, Cruz, Grassley, and Hawley urged the president to suspend guest worker programs, including the seasonal H2B program, and optional practical training (OPT) for F-1 students. Their proposal starts with a 60-day suspension and calls for H2B, H-1B and OPT visas to be suspended for at least a year. 

There is a lot we could take issue with in their statements, starting with the assertion that "The United States admits more than one million nonimmigrant guest workers every year, and there is no reason to admit most such workers when our unemployment is so high." Many guest workers are brought to the U.S. to fill specialized jobs or the work that nobody wants to do, so denying them entry would have little effect on unemployment.

But let’s just look at a few things:

  • - The seasonal H2B program has an advertising requirement. Employers who wish to use the H2B program have to advertise for the job and guarantee that they will pay a certain wage (usually significantly above an entry level wage).  Louisiana uses roughly 5,000 H2B workers every year, predominantly in the seafood industry and landscaping/nursery industry. That makes up less than one percent of the Louisiana workforce, but the loss of those workers would be devastating to Louisiana. 
  • - The H-1B program requires an employer to file a petition for the foreign national with USCIS. It involves lots of filing fees, and for private employers requires competition in a lottery. The use of the H1B program has historically fallen with the economy.  
  • - Optional Practical Training allows college graduates to work in the United States for one year after graduation. The roughly 220,000 OPT students are again a very small percentage of the U.S. population and workforce, but studies show again and again that international education and international students make a giant, positive impact on our economy. The value of international students to Louisiana is exceptional. For a great summary of why New Orleans and Louisiana should support international students, see a great opinion from Kristy Magner at Tulane University.

Scapegoating non-native workers is a gesture that has a long, sad history as it suggests that they are taking all the good jobs. The math says that’s not true, and that they are actually good for our struggling economy. That said, pick your corner and call your senators.

As for us, we choose bridges over walls, y’all.

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