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Trump's H-2B support? Not a problem

Our view: Donald Trump has made a lot of mistakes on matters of trade and immigration, but expanding H-2B isn’t one of them

On Thursday, President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort notified federal authorities that it wants to hire 70 temporary guest workers under the H-2B visa program, allowing the chosen cooks, housekeepers and servers to enter the country and work there from Oct. 1 to May. Some are likely to take issue with that given President Trump’s strongly nativist “America First” rhetoric denouncing porous immigration policies and trade practices that are “shipping jobs overseas.” That the Mar-a-Lago application was made during the White House’s “Made in America Week” only underscores a perception of a president who doesn’t practice the protectionist policies he touts.

There’s only one problem with that line of attack. As controversial as the H-2B visa program may be, Mar-a-Lago’s application would appear to fit the bill of exactly what the temporary worker program is supposed to be about — filling jobs that don’t require highly-skilled workers and would likely otherwise go unfilled. With the U.S. unemployment rate at 4.3 percent as of May, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a lot of companies are having trouble finding applicants for physically challenging jobs in restaurants, hotels, theme parks and elsewhere in the hospitality industry. What’s the most common position filled with an H-2B? Landscaping. Apparently, finding people willing to pull weeds and dig holes in South Florida is as difficult as it sounds.

Last week, the Trump administration also announced that the H-2B program would be enlarged by 15,000 positions, but it could have expanded the program by 55,000 more under authority granted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by Congress. And even with the expansion, the entire program represents a tiny fraction of the total U.S. workforce, with H-2B constituting less than one-tenth of one percent of U.S. employment. Critics, including many labor unions, charge that H-2B hurts native workers by giving employers a cheaper option than raising pay or improving working conditions. But the program is so tiny and employers have to jump through so many hoops — they have to prove that they can’t find U.S. workers to fill the jobs, and the U.S. Department of Labor has to certify that domestic workers aren’t being undercut — that it’s unlikely to have much negative effect in the broader economy.

The more typical H-2B situation is that of Maryland’s Eastern Shore crab packing houses, which have long relied on guest workers, often from Mexico, to help pick meat from steamed crabs, a tedious and demanding job. When processors can’t find people willing to pick crabs, their options are limited. While it’s true there’s surely a wage high enough to get local blue collar workers pounding on their doors ($20 an hour? $30?), they’d likely have to raise the price of crab meat to non-competitive levels to pay it. The result? The demand for Maryland crab meat would plummet, and not only would the packing houses be closed but the watermen who provide the Chesapeake Bay crabs for those packing operations in the first place would be unemployed. And with those jobs, go the supporting jobs making crab pots, supplying bait, repairing work boats and on and on.

Over the years, Maryland politicians have taken a lot of heat for supporting H-2B visas. Retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski was regularly accused of being a sellout to corporate interests by those who perceive H-2B as exploitative of foreigners. And while mistreatment is a problem that ought to be guarded against, the basic premise of H-2B is not unreasonable. Guest workers earn a better wage than they might in their native countries, crab packing houses and watermen stay in business, and Eastern Shore towns like Fishing Creek in Dorchester County aren’t devastated by plant shutdowns. Again, this isn’t a widespread practice. Maryland employs fewer than 5,000 people under H-2B statewide, according to federal labor statistics, with most earning between $20,000 and $27,000 per year.

Don’t get us wrong. President Trump’s diatribes against undocumented immigrants have been shameful, and his claims about trade practices have been misleading and self-serving. And certainly, holding a stake in Mar-a-Lago (and subsequently visiting and promoting the resort as president) represents a poor decision that has cost him precious credibility; Mr. Trump should have placed his holdings in a blind trust before inauguration day. That said, a modest expansion of the H-2B program isn’t at odds with promoting American-made products nor is it a failure to stick up for American workers. It’s mostly a sensible idea.

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