As portions of Alabama's law designed to curb illegal immigration remain on appeal, proposed changes by the U.S. Department of Labor to a federal visa program threaten to raise migrant labor costs by more than 50 percent in the state.
Jim King, vice president of natural resources for forestry management company Westervelt, estimates that the new hourly pay rate for workers in Alabama under the H-2B visa program would be between $13.06 and $21.16, depending on industry and county. King says that those workers currently make $7.25 to $8.37 per hour.
The Department of Labor claims that the proposed changes “focus on enhancing employee recruitment efforts for U.S. workers and strengthening the necessary protections for foreign workers brought here under this temporary program,” according to USA Today.
But people in the Alabama's forestry and restaurant industries say that despite the struggling economy, Americans aren’t willing to do the work that H-2B immigrant laborers do—a sentiment that should resonate with Colorado farmers who tried to hire locals after an increase in the H-2A minimum wage last summer. (The H-2A visa is similar to the H-2B but covers agricultural jobs.) Many of the domestic workers walked off the job saying that the work was too hard, and some Colorado farmers struggled to make harvest.
Chris Isaacson, executive vice president of the Alabama Forestry Association, says that even if Americans do fill these jobs, the proposed changes will increase the cost of replanting in Alabama “to the point where we believe many landowners will choose not to [re]plant.”
Only 66,000 H-2B visas may be issued per year, and neither the H-2A nor the H-2B program offer a legal pathway to citizenship. Shikha Dalmia has noted for Reason:
[These temporary visas] are meant only for seasonal jobs and are self-liquidating. This means that once a worker has installed a piece of machinery or assisted a landscape company get through its peak season, the visa automatically expires.
With the Department of Labor’s proposed changes set to take effect at the end of the month, those self-liquidating jobs might not even be an option as some Alabama employers will struggle to hire seasonal workers at all.
Read Dalmia on how illegal immigrants are not “queue-jumpers who illegally crossed the border ahead of those patiently waiting their turn," because “there is no such line—a legal pathway to citizenship for unskilled workers.”