House conservatives are up in arms over a provision in the omnibus spending bill that could allow more than a quarter-million temporary guest workers into the U.S.
As a significant change to immigration law, the measure stunned conservative lawmakers, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told The Daily Signal.
“It came out of nowhere, completely out of nowhere,” Jordan, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said, “[and] everyone was shocked there was a change and no one had talked about it.”
The provision is the most recent aspect of the $1.1-trillion package to rile conservatives. Congress hopes to pass the omnibus by Friday, before heading home for the holidays.
Tucked into the 2,009-page spending bill, the measure would increase the current federal caps on H-2B visas for low-skilled foreign workers seeking blue-collar jobs in the U.S.
The provision would quadruple the number of foreign workers allowed annually from 66,000 to 264,000.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in courting conservatives just weeks ago in the speaker race, promised he wouldn’t push immigration changes while a Democrat is in the White House.
But Jordan described the move as “a significant change, something you shouldn’t throw in at the last minute.” He added:
I don’t know how much Paul knew about it, but I think it’s the wrong direction, the wrong policy decision, particularly when you don’t have extensive debate or discussion.
A Ryan aide downplayed the speaker’s role in the measure and qualified his past promise.
“Ryan didn’t say the House would not touch programs related to visas, rather that it would not pass comprehensive immigration reform,” the aide told The Daily Signal. “This is not that, and not even close.”
The House Judiciary Committee, not Ryan, crafted the change in line with his promise “to allow the committees [to] take the lead in legislating,” the aide said. It was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on July 21 by a vote of 32-17 as part of a homeland security spending bill (H.R. 3128; page 72).
Asked about it Wednesday, Ryan told reporters:
This passed the House Appropriations Committee in July, with the House Judiciary Committee working with that committee. So if you have any questions, I’d refer you to those guys. The whole point of this, I want committees driving the process. I want committees writing the legislation, and that’s what happened here.
Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said that claim is “a little slippery.”
Although the guest worker provision is “not comprehensive,” Brat told The Daily Signal, the measure didn’t follow regular order; it came “before committee, maybe, but never before the House for a vote.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he found out about the provision from media reports. He said the episode hearkens back to experiences under the previous speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“We were not told by our leadership that it [the guest worker program] was in the bill,” Huelskamp said. “That’s very disappointing and something that we had come to expect under former Speaker Boehner: Things would just appear.”
Brat, an economics professor before being elected to Congress last year, questioned the logic behind what he says is “one of the most abused visa programs there is.”
“Why is it that we go and try to recruit in bulk folks who compete against Americans, [against] our inner-city kids, where the unemployment rate is above 30 percent already?” he asked.
The H-2B guest worker program has come under increased scrutiny in recent months. In December, the media outlet Buzzfeed reported that its investigation found that “businesses go to extraordinary lengths to deny jobs to U.S. workers” and use the program “so they can hire foreigners instead.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., lambasted the legislation Wednesday as proof that the Republican Party’s elites “are openly hostile” and represented “a further disenfranchisement of the American voter.”
Even before the proposed expansion, the H-2B program had galvanized opposition, making allies of some conservatives and labor unions.
An umbrella organization of national unions, the AFL-CIO, called the program “deeply harmful to both the workers, working under the visas, and to U.S. workers.”
NumbersUSA, an organization that opposes increases in immigration, criticized H-2B visas as preying on “vulnerable families during a time when jobs are still hard to find for lower-skilled workers.”
This story was updated to include information about the committee vote and a quote from Ryan.