H2B visa program legislation introduced in both houses of Congress

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: April 1, 2017

Two bills that would temporarily reinstate the H2B visa temporary worker program have been introduced recently in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

The legislation would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow for more workers to enter the U.S. The Senate bill would “establish an H2B temporary non-agricultural work visa program,” while the House measure states it would “reinstate the returning workers’ exemption for H2B visas.”

The Senate bill (792), introduced March 30, and House bill (1627), introduced March 20, were sent to their respective Judiciary committees. Their fate is uncertain given the Trump administration’s desire for broad immigration reform.

The H2B visa program has an annual cap of 66,000 visas. Qualified workers who complied with previous visa requirements and worked in the program during one of the preceding three years had been excluded from the cap via the returning worker provision, but Congress failed to extend that program late last year.

The situation has obvious consequences for Thoroughbred racing, which relies heavily on foreign workers.

Janet Ritchey, wife of trainer Tim Ritchey who serves as a board member and treasurer of the Delaware Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said many have been shut out of the visa program this year, including her husband’s stable. Janet Ritchey for years has handled the stable’s H2B visas rather than going through an attorney and has first-hand knowledge of the process.

Ritchey said the 66,000 cap has been divided equally between the first six months of the year and the last six months. Applications were submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor in January, and by mid-January there were 82,000 applicants for 33,000 visas, she said.

“I kept going ahead with it thinking some would fall by the wayside, but by mid-March the website said it wasn’t taking anymore. I had applied for visas for people, and my four are now stuck in Mexico. As part of the process, we spent $1,500 on ads in local papers for American workers and posted positions on the state jobs website. We didn’t get one call.”

It’s not an uncommon experience for trainers who regularly need help in barn areas at numerous racetracks across the country.

“We’re not sure who will be available to be here (at Delaware Park, which opens for live racing June 3),” Ritchey said. “It’s going to be difficult. We provide our workers benefits, but we don’t like poaching people from other stables. And if help isn’t available, we don’t bring our horses in to the track.

“It’s a very frustrating situation when you try to do things the right way—legally.”

Ritchey said she can’t understand why individuals who work with horses at racetracks and training centers don’t fall under an “agriculture” designation when it comes to applying for work visas, because “horses are agriculture.” Horse farms, meanwhile, are able to attract workers under the much broader H2A visa program.

During a March 28 meeting in Delaware geared toward regulation and equine welfare in the Mid-Atlantic region and New York, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, who was a guest speaker, said there is a need to revamp visa programs. His district is known as a major producer of the nation’s oranges.

“Oranges aren’t going to pick themselves,” Rooney said of the need for immigrant workers in the state. “We’ve been assured that whatever visa program is requisite to a pertinent industry, (the administration) is not interested in hurting our economy in any way.”

Rooney also said, however, that the current climate in Washington, D.C., doesn’t lend itself to passage of just about any piece of legislation.