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U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota says guest worker programs that bring foreigners to America to fill seasonable employment positions are a critical part of the state economy. Yet Rounds says the intense debate over illegal immigration in America has wrongly influenced, and in some cases stymied, efforts to reform and improve guest worker programs.
Rounds, a Republican who is a former governor of South Dakota, shared his views on guest worker programs and immigration reform efforts during a phone interview with South Dakota News Watch reporter Bart Pfankuch on Thursday, April 25. Here is a question-and-answer version of that conversation.
SDNW: How do guest worker visa programs help South Dakota?
ROUNDS: “In South Dakota, for years we have had a fairly low unemployment rate. A couple things you need for a strong economy is you have to have availability of workers; you have to have access to capital, and you have to have the ideas to innovate on.
We’ve got the innovators and we’ve got a good strong work ethic here in South Dakota. We’ve worked hard getting the capital we need or credit in some cases. But we’ve really run out of workers with an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent, and if we want to grow the economy we have to have more workers than we have today.
Since we’ve got full employment in our state today, some areas of our state have a need for part time workers or seasonal workers, and that’s an area that the H-2B visa has really been instrumental in keeping some of these businesses open.”
SDNW: How has the larger national debate over immigration and illegal immigration played into the progress of guest worker programs?
ROUNDS: “I would say that the bigger challenges we find in immigration reform muddy the water of this particular legal visa system we’ve got today. It makes it more difficult to do the day-to-day modifications based on the success of the program. I’m working with others right now to find a way to not only address the issue of border security, but also to address the issue of immigration based on what our needs are in the country, to try to bring it back into synch again with something that’s closer to resembling what our needs are not just for visas but for legal immigration as well.
Because of the challenges we’ve got right now, and the amount of illegal immigration that has occurred, it has been very challenging to get people to sit down and try to analyze what a true immigration reform package would do.
You’ve always got to start with having borders that actually work, and the only way to do that is to have a legal immigration system that addresses the need your country has for additional manpower or additional workers coming in that meet our needs. Trying to combine those two efforts has been difficult.”
SDNW: Some employers who use the H-2 visa programs say there is uncertainty if and when they will get workers and complain that the process is too complicated. Can that be fixed?
ROUNDS: Just the fact that we don’t have as many people in the system as our employers would like to have in the system creates the shortage to begin with. There is more demand than what we have slots allocated for in the United States.
We’ve done part of this by modifying the existing direction of the legislation each year. We’ve been successful in that. But the bigger issue has been that the increase has not been as large each year as the demand has been as our economy grows.
And the second part has been the timeliness of when we get the legislation in place directing the [Trump] Administration to issue more and the time that the administration actually does respond and issue the rules and guidance to get it out. That’s something that could be resolved if the administration was interested in doing so.
They’ve not been in a hurry to issue these, in part because they still have a sense that this legal immigration is still bringing more people into the country and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the first priority that they have.
SDNW: Is there a sense in Washington and elsewhere that guest worker programs contribute to illegal immigration?
ROUNDS: “We don’t have that problem on H-2B. The H-2B visa program has not to the best of my knowledge had a problem with individuals coming in and then not going home again.
Under the program, if they’re working here legally, there’s no reason for them once they get into the program to want to violate their visa guidelines because they can come back again and do it the following year, and once they’re in the system, they’re in.
I think what it is that people are not differentiating between illegal immigration and legal visas, and I think they sometimes pull it all in together, and that’s a mistake.
We need a good legal immigration system and a good legal visa system in place. If we had one that actually worked for our country, with strong border security, we wouldn’t have nearly the illegal immigration challenges that we face today.”
SDNW: Can improvements be made to guest worker programs?
ROUNDS: “[Former Homeland Security Secretary] Kirstjen Nielsen is no longer there, so they’re in the midst of changing leadership, and with that comes all sorts of people who will hold up and wait for reapproval for certain things.
This is a program that year in and year out we have pushed for very hard. We made contact there and they just simply, they understood how sensitive this was and they were not going to move forward in an expedited basis, it was, ‘In due course, we’ll do it.’ But what it does in South Dakota and other places is that it stops businesses from being able to participate in the warmer time of the year and in doing so, that is hurting our economy.
This is a good system, the administration of it needs to be improved, the timeliness of decisions needs to be expedited, and we could really use more people in the system to help eliminate the shortages we have right now to help our economy grow. This is part of the legal immigration system that should be recognized as being successful.”
SDNW: What do you want people who are unfamiliar with guest worker programs to know about them?
ROUNDS: “When you have an unemployment rate below 3%, individuals don’t just want to work part time or seasonally, they want to work full time. And some of these businesses though, they only have a need for a worker for part of the year.
There are people from other parts of the world that will come to work here, make good money because you have to pay a prevailing wage in the area, and they return to their home country where they do very well, and they come back consistently in many cases to the same employer year after year. But they’re not here during the slow business time of the year.
H-2B has been critical, particularly in areas surrounding tourism and landscaping and so forth, things we don’t do year-round but only during the warmer part of the year.”
SDNW: How high is the demand for guest workers in South Dakota and across the nation? What is the status of congressional efforts to get the Trump Administration to open up more visas this year?
ROUNDS: “They announced that they would do the 30,000 and that’s in addition to the individuals that in the past have come in, so our actual demand was closer to 90,000, so it won’t fill the whole demand but it is a step in the right direction.
There are some limitations on who can use these and so forth, but the fact is that we’ll take all we can get at this stage of the game because our economy is growing. The demand is three times what the availability is even now.
In many cases, you apply for the visas, I don’t know if they’re all out or not, I know the requests were in and they were filled like within an hour or less and the thing was full of requests. The allocation would only be available to applicants who have had H-2B status in one of the past three fiscal years.
Part of this is, the administration has not completed all of their rules and guidance and eligibility requirements and application details, the last time we checked that had not yet been completed.
[Former secretary] Nielsen was really in favor of getting this stuff done and she helped us work through this, now that she’s not there, that may very well slow down part of this process in the future.”
SDNW: Do you support the proposal by U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to make 2,500 more H-2B visas available to states, like South Dakota, with very low unemployment rates?
ROUNDS: “I do. It will depend on whether we can get administration support for it, and I don’t know whether John has been able to secure that or not. There will be other states that will say if you’re taking from the existing supply, then all you’ve done is tilt it in your state’s favor.
If there are additional H-2B visas made available, it will make it easier for us to actually pick up some additional support.”
SDNW: Your bill to provide border wall funding and immigration reform failed last year. What happened?
ROUNDS: [U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine] and I put our names on the bill a year ago last February that would have provided $25 billion to the president for securing the border and also would have addressed the issue of the dreamers, not giving them amnesty, but giving them a legal status within the United States for a period of seven years before allowing them to work through the normal process of applying for citizenship in the next five years after that. We got 54 votes in the Senate, but we needed 60 to get it out of senate.
He and I are going to be working on trying to put together a more comprehensive immigration reform package because we need to do something about the H-2B visas that we need so it more appropriately addresses the needs of our country, but we also need to address our overall workforce needs as well as the border security. It makes a huge difference to people here in South Dakota.
SDNW: Operators of dairies and other year-round industries that struggle to get workers would like to see an H-2 visa that allows for longer stays. Is that on your radar?
ROUNDS: “It’s on my radar. I’ve talked to some of the dairy groups about it and I recognize what their challenge is. We’re having a very difficult time getting consensus in the Senate for a package that would include those types of modifications.
But they have a point, some of these organizations that talk about this also want to make sure that if you had a visa program that would address some of their needs, that these folks still have the availability to go back to their own country and start over again.
The reforms that were made several years ago that required people to leave and go back home again really helped the individuals from the other country because in some parts of our country, employers were taking and holding their passports and not giving it back to them, which caused a real problem.
The reform that was made required these people to go back home so they could choose another employer if their first employer was not a good employer. You’d have the same issue with dairies, where you’ll have to find a way so that people can get away and go home and start over again if they want to. Those are the types of issues that have to be resolved.”
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach.