Commentary: Guest worker visas would ease border situation

The following piece first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News. You can find it here, or continue reading.

President Joe Biden’s first 100 days have been tested by tens of thousands of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s a situation we’ve seen many times before, but a variety of conditions have exacerbated the problem. A combination of COVID-19, climate change and the perceived open-door policy of the Biden administration have contributed to create (yet another) border crisis.

It’s not a surprise. Border and immigration issues are difficult, and there are no quick fixes. But there is one often-overlooked response where swift action could make a significant and immediate difference: expanding and targeting guest worker visas.

In March, U.S. authorities encountered an estimated 170,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. These individuals left their communities for multiple reasons, including violence, political instability and lack of economic opportunities in Central America. The pandemic-worsened economic crisis and November’s back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota also exacerbated tensions and food insecurity.

For those fleeing political persecution, there are asylum pathways. However, for those seeking to escape dire straits, it will take time for Biden’s $4 billion plan for Central America to impact their rural communities. These individuals are left with two migration options: Try to pass as asylum-seekers or attempt to enter the United States undetected.

There could be a third option. Many of these individuals could come to the U.S. on guest worker visas. They could travel to the United States legally, drying up funds for human smugglers and avoiding perilous interactions with criminal organizations. They would then fill jobs in critical sectors that struggle to find U.S. workers, even in the pandemic. It’d be a win for the border, for the U.S. economy and for families looking for a hopeful future.

There are two types of temporary guest worker visas: H-2A and H-2B. H-2A visas are for agricultural workers, and there are unlimited numbers for employers unable to recruit enough U.S. farmworkers. H-2B visas are for temporary nonagriculture jobs, and they are capped at 66,000. Employers face increasing competition for these coveted slots. In 2019, the high volume of H-2B requests crashed the Department of Labor’s application site.

The H-2A and H-2B guest worker visas go almost uniformly to Mexicans; only a handful are extended to Central Americans. In 2019, more than 264,000 seasonal work visas were issued to Mexicans, while less than 8,000 visas were granted to Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans combined. Amid the pandemic, this number for Central Americans fell to less than 5,000 visas in 2020.

However, the Biden administration — and, in particular, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — has the ability to both raise the cap on H-2B visas by 64,000 visas and to allocate all or a significant number of these visas to Central Americans.

This wouldn’t be new. In early 2020, the Trump administration raised the H-2B cap and set aside 10,000 for Central Americans, but later reversed the move before it went into effect. During the pandemic, members of Congress from both parties encouraged the Department of Homeland Security to lift this limit in order to meet employers’ demand for workers.

These visas would aid the U.S. economic recovery and could be targeted to have a direct effect on the numbers of Central Americans arriving at the border. Not only would they immediately reroute tens of thousands of people in the region into guest worker programs, but the economic effect would extend to these individuals’ family members and communities as additional remittances find their way back to Central America.

Research shows that guest worker visas redirect people into legal pathways. Studies have suggested the increase in seasonal work visas for Mexicans over the last decade contributed to the decline in the apprehensions of Mexicans at the border. There is no reason this wouldn’t be the case for Central Americans.

The H-2B program is not without its flaws. It needs adjustments so it works better for U.S. employers, domestic labor groups and guest workers. This includes streamlining the Department of Labor’s certification process to shorten the approval time for employers and providing stronger labor protections for guest workers who fear retaliation if they report workplace abuses or wage theft. These are not insurmountable obstacles.

As with all things related to immigration, there are few straightforward policy solutions. Yet guest worker visas come pretty close. With tens of thousands more Central Americans likely to travel to the border in the coming months, it is urgent Biden act immediately.

Antonio Garza served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2002 through 2009.