It was spring before Black Hills tourism businesses that depend on seasonal foreign workers learned they might once again be able to open all summer lodge rooms, serve patrons at all open tables.
Near the end of March, the Trump administration again expanded the badly undersized national H-2B visa program by 30,000 workers, nearly doubling the seasonal base allotment. The ruling was released in the Federal Register on May 8. Adequate help may arrive late this summer, but at least businesses now know it may ultimately arrive. It’s been this way for years.
It’s no way to run a business. In remote corners of the Black Hills where summer jobs outnumber residents, H-2B visa uncertainty has become an annual nightmare, like spring floods for farmers or government shutdowns for contractors.
“We have 500 or more jobs open and we have a town of only 325 people,” recently noted Richard Greene, president of the Keystone Chamber of Commerce and manager of the Rushmore Express hotel. The math is easy.
Immigration debate toxicity has poisoned the well for even sensible, real-world practical solutions like H-2B visas. The tendency of simplified ideology to replace complex arguments has that effect. If conditions lead to conclusions that one shade of gray — illegal immigration — is bad, more people will conclude that all shades of gray must be bad in all circumstances.
With the unemployment rate at 2.8 percent in South Dakota, businesses in places like Keystone and Custer simply don’t have an alternative labor pool to tap, especially for short-term less-desirable jobs. The H-2B program allows for the legal use of vetted temporary foreign workers in places with documented labor shortages. Before winning approval to hire H-2B guest workers, employers must show evidence that there are not enough U.S. workers for the jobs and that the employment of H-2B workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
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In 2018, 1,414 workers came to South Dakota on H-2B temporary non-agricultural visas. That same year, according to Sen. Mike Rounds, South Dakota tourism supported more than 54,000 jobs and generated nearly $300 million in tax revenue. This isn’t about replacing native workers with cheap foreign labor. It’s about bringing workers to places they wouldn’t otherwise go.
As Rounds recently noted in a column: While there is certainly room for improvement in our immigration system, the H-2B visa program is one of the most effective programs available. For some businesses, being able to hire a few H-2B visa workers each year is a matter of staying open or facing the prospect of closing down.
Sens. Rounds and John Thune have both attempted legislative fixes, but staunch partisanship in Congress has hampered reform. Rounds said fixing any problems in the guest worker programs has been slowed by the Trump Administration, which he said has not put a priority on dealing with visa and legal immigration programs.
This spring, in the statement announcing the rule that doubled H-2B visas, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan urged Congress to revamp its rules.
"Congress — not DHS — should be responsible for determining whether the annual numerical limitations for H-2B workers set by Congress need to be modified and by how much, and for setting parameters to ensure that enough workers are available to meet employers' temporary needs throughout the year," he said.
Rounds and Thune have tried. Others in Congress need to stop dithering for political leverage. At some point, practicality must triumph over fuzzy ideological sentiment. We need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.