Amidst a series of bipartisan White House-convened meetings to pursue a deal on border security and a solution for the DACA program came a disparaging comment from President Trump. He questioned aloud why America would want immigrants from some less-fortunate nations, including those in Africa as well as Haiti and El Salvador. The backlash to the words and apparent underlying sentiment was broad and fierce, and the DACA dialogue has come to a screeching halt, at least for now.
Meanwhile in the horticulture industry, many are waiting with bated breath in the hopes of progress on the politically fractious immigration reform issues. Here are key recent developments that affect us.
H-2B disaster looms. The visa cap for the first half of the fiscal year, which started October 1, was hit before Christmas… a lump of coal in many landscape employers’ Christmas stockings. This means many who got shut out will join the large number of landscape companies seeking workers starting April 1. On New Year’s Day, the Labor Department filing process opened for April 1 employment dates. Over 80,000 H-2B positions were applied for – more than twice the 33,000 visas that Congress has made available. Your odds are much better in an old fashioned coin toss.
This is a looming train wreck for horticulture. The landscape sector is the single biggest user of the H-2B program. Serious labor shortages affect landscape firms themselves. They also affect greenhouse and nursery growers, equipment suppliers, and beyond. AmericanHort is working with coalition colleagues on three separate strategies to provide cap relief. Meanwhile, we urge employers to contact your elected officials to plead for urgently-needed H-2B cap relief.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Over the years, various administrations have granted or extended “temporary protected status” to individuals from various countries that have been ravaged by natural disasters, civil strife, or both. TPS status has often been extended on the grounds that the conditions in the sending countries have not improved sufficiently for people to safely return.
The Trump Administration recently announced termination of TPS for roughly 200,000 Salvadoran individuals, effective September 2019. Why should we care? Many of these individuals have been in the U.S. for as long as 20 years. They have an estimated 190,000 U.S. citizen children. Workforce participation rates are 88%, and many of them own homes. The landscape sector is the third largest industry in which these individuals are employed. Some are employed in nurseries and garden retail establishments, too. Their departure would worsen already-serious labor shortages.
The Salvadorans now join some 50,000 Haitians and 5,000 Nicaraguans for whom termination dates had already been announced. Meanwhile, 54,000 Hondurans are bracing for a decision on their status. Of course, Congress could intervene to provide a path to lasting residency for some of these individuals based on their equities in our society.
New “Hard-line” Enforcement Bill. A group of House Republicans has introduced a new and very tough immigration enforcement bill. Among a much longer list of provisions, it would reduce legal immigration levels, restrict some family-based migration, end the diversity visa lottery, authorize a border wall, clamp down on “sanctuary cities,” hire 10,000 more Border Patrol and CBP agents, and make the E-Verify program mandatory for all employers. In exchange, it would provide for continued deportation deferrals for DACA recipients, but no path to residency status. The package also includes the AG Act, an agricultural guest worker bill that was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in October. While that bill has a few attractive features, it also has serious flaws and low support in the agricultural community. A new visa cap and unrealistic options for current agricultural workers top a longer list of concerns.
Politically, most experts see that such a hard line approach stands no chance of enactment into law, and as such, is a distraction from ongoing efforts to achieve a more balanced solution that pairs status for DACA recipients with some border security measures and a few other immigration system improvements.
Will cooler heads and rhetoric prevail? Only time will tell.