DHS: Extra H-2B Visas on Hold Because of High Unemployment Due to COVID-19
Extra H-2B visas have been put “on hold” and would not be released “until further notice,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced.
Shortfalls of H-2B visas have been a perennial problem. Used for temporary, seasonal, non-agricultural workers, these visas are relied on heavily by the tourist, hospitality, landscaping, and constructions industries. The statutory limit on the number of H-2B visas available each year is 66,000: 33,000 for the spring/summer period (which starts on April 1 of each year) and another 33,000 for the winter season. Once the visas run out, based on Congressional authorization, DHS can decide to make more visas available if it determines there are not enough willing, qualified, and available U.S. workers.
This year the 33,000 H-2B spring/summer cap was reached in mid-February. On March 5, 2020, DHS announced it would release an additional 35,000 visas, with 10,000 specifically reserved for nationals from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras for their cooperation in stemming the flow of undocumented workers. Along with the extra visas came some reform measures, including:
Increasing Department of Labor employer site visits; and
Limiting the additional visas to returning workers with good records of immigration law compliance.
At that time, the unemployment rate and the consequent claims for unemployment compensation were very low – about 4%. Now, in the face of COVID-19, those claims are skyrocketing. In light of about 10 million initial unemployment claims, DHS reported that to support U.S. workers, the promised additional H-2B visas were on hold and would not be released “until further notice.” Petitions for individuals exempt from the yearly caps will still be processed. Current H-2B visa holders who are seeking extensions fall within these exemptions. Whether there is still a need for these H-2B workers remains to be seen.