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A path to citizenship would reshape the H-2B visa program. Photo: Alex Brandon/The Associated Press
A path to citizenship would reshape the H-2B visa program. Photo: Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

Rep. Joaquin Castro proposes citizenship pathway for H-2B visa workers

The Seasonal Workers Solidarity Act by Rep. Joaquin Castro would overhaul the H-2B visa program. 

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While it isn’t expected to pass the current Congress, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) introduced The Seasonal Workers Solidarity Act, a new bill that would overhaul the H-2B temporary guest-worker visa program in a move to prevent discrimination, elevate labor standards and give immigrant guest workers a path to citizenship.

The H-2B program is popular with employers within the hospitality, tourism and construction industries, reports Law360. The high demand for such visas often are greater than supply, perpetuating a flawed system where the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) grants visas through a lottery system.

The biggest shakeup would be fixing the H-2B work visa process, giving workers the chance to change jobs if they find themselves in a toxic work environment. This is important because currently, these workers are tied to their visa sponsors. 

Castro's bill would allow for a 60-day grace period for workers who leave their jobs to search for a new H-2B position.

Most drastically, the bill would also offer H-2B workers a pathway to citizenship, a major amendment that will likely see pushback from congress members with staunch immigration views, reports the San Antonio Express.

If passed, the act will bring much needed reform to the seasonal, non-agricultural guest worker program, a working population that is a huge part of the immigrant “essential” frontline workforce most at-risk amid COVID-19. 

Castro explained that the legislation would create a "new framework" for the H-2B program rooted in anti-discrimination, displacement prevention, and to reward employers who treat workers properly.

He suggested issuing H-2B visas to employers who pay the highest wages and treat their workers favorably. He would also put a limit on the number of visas a single employer can obtain, at 100.

“The visa system for temporary workers is fundamentally flawed, enabling the abuse of hard-working families,” he wrote, emphasizing a path to citizenship in a tweet.

Under Castro's citizenship pathway proposal, H-2B workers would be eligible for green cards after 18 months of continuous employment. Returning workers would be able to adjust to long-term permanent residency status once they complete a cumulative three years of work.

The Seasonal Workers Solidarity Act would also install an online database for workers to apply directly to positions, prohibiting unnecessary experience requirements and background checks that aren't legally required for a position.

Other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), of which Castro is chair, voiced their support for the bill. The CHC is deeply involved in immigrants’ rights, especially with respect to Latinos.

Co-sponsor Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Chair of the CHC Immigration Task Force and Co-Chair of the Labor Caucus wrote that, “for too many years, the program has lacked basic labor protections which allowed companies to exploit migrant workers.” 

Backed by labor groups and several House Democrats, Castro’s bill is a signal for what is to come when the House returns in 2021, and whether President-elect Joe Biden will see-through his various promises made to immigrants and workers throughout the campaign trail.

 

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