The US mainstream media had two competing events to cover the night of April 28: the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, DC, and a Trump rally in Macomb County, Michigan, a predominantly white working-class suburb of Detroit. Journalists mainly focused on the dinner, but the more important story may have been a remark President Trump made in the course of his 80-minute speech at the rally.
As reported by the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), around 33 minutes into his talk, Trump began praising guest worker programs. “For the farmers it’s going to get really good,” he started.
We’re going to let your guest workers come in, because we have to have strong borders, but we have to let your workers in. Our unemployment picture is so good and so strong that we’ve got to let people come in, they’re going to be guest workers. They’re going to work on your farms, we’re going to have the H-2Bs come in, we’re going to have a lot of things happening, but then they have to go out. But we’re going to let them in because you need them…. Guest workers, don’t we agree? We have to have them.
This was just one moment in a typical Trumpian rant, but it highlighted two developments that haven’t gotten nearly enough attention from the media: the dramatic growth of the country’s temporary work program for farm laborers in recent years, and a push from politicians and the mainstream media to expand this and other guest worker programs in the near future.
A New “Bracero” Program?
The H-2A program — named for the type of visa issued — brings workers to US farms for seasonal jobs, generally for periods of 10 months or less.
H-2A has been unpopular with both farm workers and family farmers ever since it took its present form back in 1986. Nevertheless, it has experienced phenomenal growth over the past decade-and-a-half. In fiscal year 2006, the Department of Labor certified 59,110 jobs in the H-2A category. By fiscal year 2016, the last full year of Obama’s presidency, the certifications had more than doubled, to 165,741, with a total of 134,368 visas actually issued. (The number of visas is lower than the number of certifications because some jobs aren’t filled and some workers hold more than one job during the year.)
In 2016, the United States employed a total of about 820,000 hired farm workers, so the H-2A guest workers represented more than 15 percent of the work force. This is about the same as the participation rate in the much better-known “bracero” program, which brought millions of Mexican manual laborers to work on US farms in the years from 1942 to 1964. At its high point in 1956, the program employed some 445,000 guest workers — nearly 15 percent of the approximately 3 million hired farm workers at the time.
The H-2A program seems likely to go on growing as the US Labor Department reportedly certified more than 200,000 jobs in fiscal year 2017. Meanwhile, farmer associations have been lobbying to expand the program to include year-round employment, which would add important sectors like dairy farming to the program.
This lobbying campaign has produced what veteran labor journalist David Bacon calls “the zombie guest worker bill.” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, introduced this as standalone legislation in 2017. When the bill went nowhere, he tried to attach it as a rider to the omnibus appropriations act passed in March of this year. The rider was left out of the final version, so Goodlatte added the plan to the Republicans’ so-called “compromise immigration bill” in June. That bill died in a disastrous 121-301 vote. Undeterred, Goodlatte reintroduced the guest worker expansion on July 18 as an independent bill, the AG and Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 6417), with more than 40 co-sponsors, including two Democrats.
The H-2B “Crab Crisis”
Trump’s remarks at the rally also seemed to reference a second type of guest worker program, the H-2B program, which is used to enlist seasonal workers for non-agricultural jobs. The president may have meant to say “H-2A,” or he may just not know the difference between the two programs, but it’s worth noting that his own Trump Organization employs dozens of H-2B workers. For example, as of July 10, his Mar-a-Lago Club, also known as the “Winter White House,” had applied for 78 temporary employees to work from October through next May.
A major difference between the H-2A and the H-2B programs is that the non-agricultural program has an annual limit on the number of visas issued. Currently, the cap is set at 66,000, but employer associations have been working hard to raise it; they’ve formed a lobbying group, the H-2B Workforce Coalition, to push their agenda in Congress. In both 2017 and 2018, legislators gave the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) permission to increase the number of visas. DHS added 15,000 extra visas in 2017.
In addition to lobbying Congress directly, this year, various companies appear to have launched a media campaign to create public pressure for an H-2B expansion. We’re now seeing news stories about a landscaper shortage in Texas, tourism-based businesses “left in the lurch” on Cape Cod, and the tourism and hospitality industry hurt so badly in New Hampshire that the governor had to plead for more visas. But what has gotten the most coverage is the “crab crisis.” This refers to a shortage of Mexican guest workers that the H-2B limit has supposedly inflicted on the Maryland seafood industry—which just happens to supply fresh crabmeat to the Washington restaurants where Congress members dine.
On May 3, Andy Harris, the Republican representing Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the House, responded to the problem with an announcement that DHS had agreed to issue 15,000 additional visas for this year’s summer season. But media concerns about crabmeat have continued even with the extra visas. Meanwhile, another supposed crustacean crisis may be in preparation: On July 18, Fortune reported that an H-2B worker shortage may cause the Texas shrimp industry to lose $1 million a day.
What Big Business Wants
After three years of telling his base that he “puts American jobs first,” surely Trump wouldn’t try to expand the guest worker programs — or would he?
The president routinely uses populist rhetoric to distract his base while he implements establishment policies, as happened with this year’s Republican tax plan. And guest worker expansion is a prime establishment policy. Business associations and centrist politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties have been pushing the project for years. The drive is intensifying now as a declining unemployment rate reduces the number of residents willing to take low-end temporary jobs.
As currently constituted, guest worker programs are highly exploitative; the Southern Poverty Law Center has described them as “close to slavery.” H-2B workers are charged exorbitant fees for visas, transportation and other costs, and many start their jobs already indebted to recruiters, contractors or employers. If the workers leave or get fired, they lose their visa status; sometimes employers hold on to the workers’ passports and other documents to keep them from leaving. If the workers try to organize or protest conditions, they are summarily shipped home.
It’s true that there are requirements for employers to provide decent working conditions and to pay wages at rates comparable to those for US residents, but government oversight is lax and the official pay rates are understated. An Economic Policy Institute study from 2011 provided an example: H-2B crab pickers in Maryland — the same workers whose absence was causing the hyped-up crab crisis — were being paid nearly $5 an hour less than Maryland residents who worked in comparable jobs.
The expanded guest worker programs now being considered would be even worse, if Goodlatte’s bill is any indication.
According to David Bacon, this bill would strip away the few benefits and protections agricultural guest workers have currently and would force resident farm workers to accept lower wages or face unemployment. The bill would also require agricultural employers to use E-Verify, so that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants now doing fieldwork would have to return to their home countries and re-enter as guest workers. Goodlatte’s goal, Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein told Bacon, is the creation of “a massive new guest worker program of millions of captive workers.”
Why Employers Love a Wall
The campaign for expanded guest worker programs dovetails neatly with a key part of Trump’s nationalist agenda — the drive for intensified border enforcement, intensified this year with manufactured frenzy about a caravan of Central American asylum seekers, and then with the administration’s child separation policy.
One of the US’s most notorious immigration enforcement actions was the 1954 “Operation Wetback,” which resulted in hundreds of thousands of undocumented Mexican field workers being deported or forced out from the United States. What’s often overlooked about the operation is its relation to the bracero program. As Columbia University history professor Mae Ngai details in her book Impossible Subjects, Operation Wetback’s purpose wasn’t to keep undocumented workers out of the United States, but to force them to enter through the temporary work program.
This approach remains a basis for policy in the 21st century. Bacon has noted that Michael Chertoff, DHS head during George W. Bush’s second term, described immigration enforcement as “closing the back door and opening the front door” — that is, restricting access at the border so that foreign workers are left with little choice but to come here as guest workers. There are various reasons for the rise in the number of H-2A workers since 2006, but one is certainly the massive increase in border security that has made unauthorized border crossing vastly more expensive and dangerous. “As we enforce the borders, the cost to sneak in is more,” the director of a state growers association explained to The American Prospect in 2013. “Some will die in the deserts. But [a guest worker] won’t. He’ll ride over here in an air-conditioned tour bus watching a movie.”
Will Trump’s base ever catch on to this aspect of their leader’s “big, beautiful wall”?
The crowd at the April 28 rally fell uncharacteristically silent when Trump brought up guest workers. Apparently sensing the discomfort his supporters were feeling, the president quickly noted that after working here, the foreigners “have to go out,” and the cheering resumed. Most attendees that night probably weren’t interested in farm jobs, and no doubt many were satisfied with Trump’s transparent appeals to racism and xenophobia. But at least some of the president’s supporters may change their minds as evidence mounts that his concern about “American jobs” is as bogus as his claims to be a successful entrepreneur.