2005-05-13 / Top News

President Signs New Worker Visa Policy

Businesses To Retain Work Force After All
By Ryan Schlehuber


A huge sigh of relief can be heard from business owners now that a new H-2B visa policy was signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush Wednesday, May 11. The legislation will help businesses bring back the foreign workers they have had for the last three years, possibly as early as mid-June.

On Monday, April 18, the Senate passed SB 352 by a vote of 92-6 to make the bill an amendment to HR 1268, called the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief. The House of Representatives did not vote, as 80 representatives signed on as co-sponsors to a similar bill, HB 793, which confirms they support the bill.

President Bush signed the amendment into law Wednesday, thus approving the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act 2005 proposal that was tacked on to the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act.

"We have a long way to go in reforming the H-2B Visa Program, but in the meantime, the changes that were passed under the Supplemental Appropriations Bill today will help relieve much of the stress I've heard about from northern Michigan tourist businesses this year," said Congressman Bart Stupak, who introduced a bill in January. "These changes will make the criteria more fair by setting aside half of the visas to be issued in the fall and the other half in the spring and also by not counting previous security cleared H-2B workers against the cap this year. This bill also ensures critical American workers have the first shot at these jobs. These provisions will assist our tourism businesses this summer as these provisions are retroactive to October 1, 2004."

With the proposal made into law, it capped a long struggle for area businesses and many Michigan politicians, like Mr. Stupak, a Democrat from Menominee, who lobbied Capitol Hill hard to allow businesses to acquire a workforce for the summer.

Business owners Patti Ann Moskwa, Dan Musser III, and others visited Washington several times over the winter to lobby for support of the two bills.

"Hopefully,” Mrs. Moskwa said, “the passage of this bill will provide Congress with a bi-partisan guide for future immigration legislation that will provide a method for legal temporary workers to spend a limited time working in this country."

Major proposals in the bill include exempting foreign workers from the quota who have worked for a U.S. employer for at least three years, and implementing a penalty provision for violating H-2B visa regulations.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the administrator for H-2B foreign national work visa applications, began offering the visas at the beginning of this fiscal year, October 1, and by January 4, announced it already had reached its congressionally mandated cap of 66,000 visas nationwide.

The quota was reached so early, in part, because the forest industry was allowed to capture the visas this year and, in part, because more year-around and winter seasonal businesses are taking advantage of the program.

Summer resorts in Michigan and elsewhere were left with nothing. The law did not allow them to apply for H-2B visas more than 120 days before opening, so most summer businesses were not planning to file applications until January.

Northern Michigan and east coast businesses will face a shortage in staffing if the federal government does not allow more H-2B visa workers in the United States this year, owners contend. Mackinac Island employs about 5,000 seasonal workers at the height of the season, said Mrs. Moskwa, and about 1,200 of them are H-2B visa workers.

H-2B visas allow foreign nationals to work for a U.S. employer for up to one year. These workers fill many roles, such as janitors, cooks, dishwashers, waiters, and maids, which are not as easy to fill with American workers, say employers. Usually, the same foreign workers come back annually to the same employers, thus, employers have had the fortune of not having to spend as much time and money on training new employees for those positions.

“Some of these workers are people that have worked for us for eight to 10 years,” Mrs. Moskwa said. “They are part of a working family.”

The amendment, she said, is valid at least until 2007. In the meantime, Island business owners, along with others across the country, will work closely with their U.S. representatives to come to an agreement on a permanent plan.

“There has been a lot of hooting and hollering when the votes came in,” said Mrs. Moskwa. “It’s been a long haul for all of us.”

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