Labor force shortages have adversely affected many industries in New Jersey. Many of these industries rely on temporary foreign workers to fill positions that are seasonal or short-term in nature. The U.S. has three main programs to meet this need: H-2A for agricultural workers, H-2B for non-agricultural seasonal work, and J-1 for exchange students. The programs are premised on the lack of availability of American workers to fill these positions. Among the industries most reliant on temporary labor are: agriculture, meatpacking, dairy farming, travel and tourism, restaurants, landscaping, and construction.
Although these programs are intended to fill an important gap in the U.S. labor market, their shortcomings were apparent during the discussion that took place at the December 1, 2022, program of the Garden State Immigration Policy Institute (The Institute is a joint initiative of the NJ Business Immigration Coalition and the NJ Business and Industry Association.).
Keynote speakers included David Bier, Associate Director of Immigration studies at the Cato Institute, and Theresa Cardinal Brown, Managing Director of Immigration Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Panel members included: Anthony Catanoso, CEO of the Steel Pier in Atlantic City; Laurie-Ann Flanagan, Co-Chair of the national H-2B Coalition; Peter Furey, CEO of the NJ Farm Bureau; and Lori Jenssen, Executive Director of the NJ Nursery and Landscape Association. The program moderator was Dr. Nicholas V. Montalto, Chair of the Coalition Steering Committee, and the panel moderator was Pat McGovern, Partner at the law firm of Genova Burns and member of the Coalition Steering Committee.
David Bier began the program by presenting data on the numbers of temporary work visas issued to New Jersey employers over the last decade, showing sharp rises in the number of H-2A and H-2B visas. David pointed out, however, that these workers, unlike other temporary workers, such as H-1B’s, do not have a pathway to permanent residence.
Panelists discussed the strengths and the weaknesses of existing temporary worker programs. All agreed that the availability of such workers created jobs for American workers, but that the number of visas was insufficient to meet current need. Panelists also discussed a number of problems associated with each of the programs, including processing delays, excessive wage rates, artificial caps on visa issuance, and the inability to bring workers back for another year of service.
In her concluding remarks, Theresa Cardinal Brown emphasised the vital importance of balancing competing interests in setting policy in this area. While it’s important, for example, to eliminate bad actors from participating in these programs, regulations should not be so onerous that they discourage employers from applying in the first place. Otherwise, they may turn to undocumented workers, rather than legal ones. She also emphasised the importance of doing something rather than nothing at all. It has been over 30 years since Congress has passed major immigration legislation. Other countries, she pointed out, are fine-tuning their immigration policies on an annual basis. Rather than continuing to pursue the elusive goal of so-called comprehensive immigration reform, Congress should act on specific measures as quickly as possible and do it in a bipartisan manner.
The 90-minute program was sponsored by the New Jersey chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors Association (NJ LICA).