Friday, January 14, 2005


How Washington Works

How to Increase a Quota, Without Increasing a Quota

Ever wondered about the logic of politics? Here's a good example. Many hospitality industries in the United States are unable to find qualified America workers to fill many of the positions in their establishments - like housekeeping, grounds crews, waitstaff, etc. So, many businesses rely on non-skilled temporary foreign workers under a category of Visas titled H-2B.

H-2B visas are granted on a three year basis. To obtain an H-2B worker an employer must first look for qualified Americans and make a showing the the Department of Labor that they have done so. If the labor department certifies, (and in some cases even if they don't) the employer can sponsor an H-2B visa applicant, who in turn must provide proof to ability to exit the country when the visa is expired. The government limits the number of H-2B Visas to 66,000 per fiscal year, and employers can only submit an application 120 days in advance.

Because of the growing economy (even sluggishly growing) and the unwillingness of some Americans to take service jobs (in my industry they pay fairly well at around $15/hr average) on a seasonal basis, employers are in a bind looking for workers. For the first time ever, the 66,000 H-2B visa cap was reached in February of 2004. This year it was reached in January. Which meand that many resorts and summer only facilities will be left without staff. (The related H-1B Visa quota for tech workers was reached in one day!). Anyway, my industry and many others need more seasonal workers, we need the cap raised.

Now here's the great irony. Republicans, generally thought of as 'pro-business' are bitterly split on immigration issues and voting to allow aliens into the country, even on a temporary basis for work isn't a politically popular vote to make. In fact, it 'ain't' gonna happen. (although in another great irony, Senator Kennedy is willing to sponsor a cap increase, but the GOP would never let that pass. Thanks anyway Ted)

So, with the goal of raising the cap by 40,000 slots what's a congressman to do?

Well, here's the solution. Under the current H-2B visa program, applicant's get a three year visa. However, that visa is counted each year against the quota. So in reality, if you assume that every year roughly 1/3 of the H-2B visas expire, there are really only 22,000 visa slots a year. Rather than increasing the cap, Congress could exempt those who have already been approved for the program, thus creating 44,000 or so new slots. Better yet, this technical fix means that legislators don't have to go on record as voting to raise the immigration quota.

This is how Elephant spent his Thursday.

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