March 6, 2020 11:08AM

DHS Takes a Pinch of Advice From Cato Scholars on H-2B Guest Worker Increase

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Thursday that it would increase the number of H-2B visas—for seasonal nonagricultural workers—by 35,000 for the rest of this year. Typically the program is capped at 66,000. In doing so, the department followed two pieces of guidance that my colleagues and I at Cato have urged: first, it increased the cap more than it did last year and second, it set aside some visas specifically for Central Americans to deter them from coming illegally.

While certainly not sufficient, both measures are positive developments.

In a post last month about how H-2B wages far exceed minimum wages across every U.S. state, I called for the administration to exercise the authority that Congress gave it to increase the cap, and DHS responded this month with an increase of 35,000, which is a little more than half the cap increase that it could have allowed (64,000), but is nonetheless the most it has allowed in any year so far.

DHS also stipulated that it will guarantee 10,000 visas to citizens of the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This is another bit of advice that my colleague Alex Nowrasteh and I have urged the government to do several times in recent years: create specific set‐​asides for certain Central American countries to provide a legal avenue for them to come to the United States to work.

While not nearly as many as they need, a 10,000 visa increase would triple the number of H-2B visas that went to the Northern Triangle countries last year. As I explained in my Ted Talk, guest worker visas have dramatically reduced the amount of illegal immigration from Mexico. Figure 1 shows the number of seasonal guest workers admitted legally from Mexico and the number of Mexicans arrested crossing illegally over the last four decades. The expansion in H-2B visas for seasonal nonagricultural jobs and H-2A visas for seasonal farm jobs has greatly reduced the motivation to cross illegally.

The problem is that Central Americans have not benefited from the increase in seasonal guest workers. Figure 2 shows that the share of H-2A and H-2B visas issued to Central Americans from the Northern Triangle. The result is that the share of visas going to Central Americans has remained basically flat, even as their share of border apprehensions has exploded. 

There are several important reasons why nearly all H-2A visas for farmers and most H-2B visas for seasonal agricultural employers (mainly landscapers) go to Mexicans rather than Central Americans. As I laid out in my Cato policy analysis last year:

First, migrant workers cannot apply directly for H‑2 visas. U.S. employers must recruit the workers and petition for visas on their behalf, and employers have no incentive to recruit in the Northern Triangle. Second, with about 130 million people, Mexico has a much bigger labor market in which to recruit. By comparison, the three Northern Triangle countries have just 33 million combined, and the largest — Guatemala — has only 17 million. As long as U.S. wages remain much higher than Mexican wages, employers can always find enough willing workers in Mexico alone.

Third, U.S. recruiters of foreign workers already operate in Mexico, so the marginal costs of recruiting additional workers there is approaching zero. And Central Americans cannot simply go to Mexico to meet with U.S. recruiters there because U.S. law requires each worker to prove “a residence in a foreign country which he has no intention of abandoning.” A Central American who has already abandoned his country once would not meet this requirement.

An added issue—that will certainly become relevant this year—is that the consular processing at embassies abroad for Central Americans is far more bureaucratic than for Mexicans. Mexican employers (or their hiring agents) can quickly schedule interview appointments in mass for all needed workers and otherwise manage the visa process through the Mexican consular affairs Yatri filling system. They can even schedule appointments even before the visa application is in, saving a lot of time for everyone. By contrast, the embassies in Central America all require individual accounts for every worker, which can be very burdensome to navigate on behalf of dozens or hundreds of workers. Workers who forget their passwords or email addresses that they used last year can be locked out this year, holding up the whole process.

For these reasons, employers would rather continue to hire Mexicans as long as they can regardless of the border security implications. By creating a specific carve‐​out of visas, DHS has forced businesses to seek out and hire Central Americans, diverting them from the illegal trek north. Unfortunately, this move was done at the last possible minute with no warning to employers, which could prevent them from having time to go to Central America, get through the process, and get their workers. In the future, DHS should announce the set‐​aside as soon as it legally can to prevent this situation from recurring. The State Department should expand the Yatri processing system into Central America.