WASHINGTON -- The decision by President Donald Trump's administration to allow 30,000 additional temporary guest workers into the country was welcomed Tuesday by several Arkansas employers and industry groups, who say the extra help is desperately needed.
While enjoying support, particularly from Arkansas foresters and landscapers, the move has drawn opposition from U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who argued that the jobs should be going to Americans.
Cotton traveled to the White House with other lawmakers Tuesday afternoon to discuss immigration matters with Trump and other high-level officials.
In April 2018, the Arkansas Forestry Association and the Arkansas Timber Producers Association signed a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urging them to raise the cap on H-2B visas, which had been set at 66,000 workers.
They were joined by hundreds of other entities, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at least 10 Arkansas business and industry groups.
On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it would issue the additional visas, arguing that U.S. businesses would likely "suffer irreparable harm" without the change.
Businesses say the labor market is unusually tight.
The percentage of Americans seeking jobs has fallen since Trump took office. Unemployment has dropped from 4.8 percent in January 2017 to 3.6 percent in April -- the lowest it has been in a half-century.
The Immigration and Nationality Act allows for short-term worker visas to be issued when "unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labor cannot be found in this country."
Unlike the H-1B visa program, for foreigners with specialized skills, the H-2B visas can go to workers with few skills or formal training.
The Department of Labor had certified petitions for 133,815 of the H-2B visas before the end of fiscal 2018, supporters of the program said in their April 2018 letter. The cap for fiscal 2019, which ends Sept. 30, was reached by the end of February.
Max Braswell, executive vice president of the Arkansas Forestry Association, said the visas are a crucial source of short-term employees.
"We plant millions of seedlings annually, here in the state and across the United States, and seasonal workers have long been a primary source of labor for that," he said.
In Arkansas in 2016, H-2B certification was granted for 1,212 forest and conservation workers. Another 568 certifications were processed for landscaping and groundskeeping crew members, according to the Labor Department's Office of Foreign Labor Certification.
Signers to the 2018 letter included the Golf Course Superintendents Association of Arkansas. The Alotian Club was also listed.
In a written statement Monday, Cotton questioned the administration's decision to grant additional H-2B visas.
"Our immigration system should prioritize the needs of U.S. citizens over cheap foreign labor," the lawmaker from Dardanelle said. "Allowing an additional 30,000 seasonal workers into the country forces Americans to compete for jobs against non-citizens who drag down wages. We should be setting immigration policies that support wage growth and employment for Americans instead of encouraging a race to the bottom by importing low-cost labor."
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said changes to the existing system are needed.
"President Trump wants a common sense, lawful and safe immigration system that Americans, and those wanting to become Americans, have deserved for a long time," he said.
A Section on 05/08/2019
Print Headline: Groups, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton divided on guest-workers plan