Owner Joe Lipton, bottom right, sits with employees of Stone's Throw restaurant in York from Mexico and Jamaica. Lipton is hoping for an expansion of the H-2B visa program to allow for more foreign workers to come to Maine for the summer season. "Around here, there just aren’t enough people to work these jobs,” he said. Credit: Ioanna Raptis | The York Weekly

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security said Friday it will issue 15,000 additional guest worker visas for 2018, facing an outcry from business owners who say they’re being hurt by country’s labor squeeze.

It was the second year in a row that DHS agreed to allocate an extra 15,000 guest worker visas, on top of the 66,000 annual cap established by Congress. Lawmakers have granted DHS the authority to exceed the cap, and in recent weeks they have urged Nielsen to allow more foreigners to alleviate the tight labor market, with the unemployment rate at 3.9 percent.

The H-2B visas are for foreigners who take seasonal jobs in seafood, tourism, landscaping, construction and others industries — but not farm workers. Critics of the guest worker program say such jobs should pay more, in order to attract more teenagers and American workers who have dropped out of the labor force.

In a statement, DHS said Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen determined there were not enough “qualified, U.S. workers available. . . . to satisfy the needs of American businesses.”

“The limitations on H-2B visas were originally meant to protect American workers, but when we enter a situation where the program unintentionally harms American businesses it needs to be reformed,” said Nielsen, whose statement urged lawmakers to pass legislation to establish an appropriate number of seasonal visas.

“We are once again in a situation where Congress has passed the buck and turned a decision over to DHS,” her statement said.

During a congressional hearing last week, several senators prevailed upon Nielsen to offer more visas, telling her their constituents were desperate to find employees.

“There’s not one manufacturing plant in Wisconsin, not one dairy farm, not one resort that can hire enough people,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told her.

It was a near-repeat of what happened last year under then-Secretary John Kelly. At that time, DHS described its decision to allocate 15,000 extra visas as a “one-time” increase. There was no such wording in Friday’s statement.

“It shouldn’t become a habit, but I’m afraid it will,” said Mark Kirkorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who has written articles in recent weeks praising the labor shortages as a sign of the success of Trump’s immigration crackdown.

Kirkorian said he was not surprised because Trump is not an opponent of the guest worker system, and has hired seasonal foreign labor for his golf courses and resorts.

“The President is for H2B visas, so this is one area where his ‘Buy American, Hire American’ doesn’t apply – it’s hire foreign,” Kirkorian said.

Trump has used the H-2B visa program to hire workers at his golf resorts in Palm Beach, Florida, and Jupiter, Florida, saying he “could not get help” during the tourist high season.

“Everybody agrees with me on that,” Trump said during a 2015 presidential debate. “They were part-time jobs. You needed them, or we just might as well close the doors, because you couldn’t get help in those hot, hot sections of Florida.”

Washington Post writer Tracy Jan contributed to this report.

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