The spending bill that Congress approved on Friday includes a provision that would greatly reduce the protections offered to low-skilled guest workers who come to the United States as part of a controversial visa program.
The H-2B visa, as the program is called, allows more than 100,000 low-skilled laborers into the United States each year. Many of the guest workers are given jobs in some of the nation's most grueling industries, from picking fruit to processing seafood.
Supporters of the program say it benefits employers and workers, allowing businesses to fill undesirable jobs that would otherwise go unfilled while providing foreign workers with much-needed income.
But in reality, as two BuzzFeed News investigations have found, the program is rife with abuses, with many guest laborers forced to work in conditions that approach squalor, while qualified American applicants for the same jobs are turned away.
The H-2B rider — essentially a legislative ride-along — is buried deep in the 2,000-page spending bill that President Obama is expected to sign into law in the coming days. Among other measures, the rider prohibits the Department of Labor from using any of the funds appropriated in the bill to enforce some of the H-2B program's key protections for immigrant workers.
For example, the rider specifies that no funds in the act can be used to enforce the so-called "three-fourths guarantee," which requires employers to offer guest laborers enough paid hours to equal eight full work days out of every 12. The rider also prohibits the use of the act's funds to enforce "corresponding employment," which affords U.S. workers in similar positions to H-2B laborers equivalent terms to their immigrant peers.
However, the provision does allow employers to hire H-2B workers who return to the U.S. for a second term of employment without using the limited slots for new guest laborers, effectively increasing the number of temporary foreign workers.
“Behind closed doors, Congress members snuck language into the federal appropriations bill that would expand a program that allows U.S. employers to import and exploit foreign workers," Naomi Tsu, an attorney with the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement. "This legislation would lower the wage rates employers are required to pay foreign and American laborers and make it difficult for the Department of Labor to protect them from wage theft and other abuses."
Among the act's provisions is an exception that also allows employers in the seafood industry — where BuzzFeed News found some of the worst abuses against immigrant workers — to bring guest laborers to the United States up to 120 days after filing an H-2B petition.
The office Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who pushed for the riders, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.