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Makenzie Taylor

Each year, 66,000 H-2B visa guest workers enter the United States to perform nonagricultural temporary and seasonal jobs[1] in industries such as forestry, landscaping, hospitality, seafood processing, and construction.[2] The workers typically perform “relatively low-skilled” jobs and often work in “geographic areas where the number of available U.S. workers is limited.”[3] They comprise less than 0.001% of total U.S. employment.[4]

Far from reducing job availability for U.S. workers, the H-2B program is essential to many smaller and seasonal businesses.[5] It “supplies a source of supplementary labor for [physically demanding] jobs that U.S. workers are unwilling to take.”[6] H-2B workers provide a “legal, stable and motivated work force,” allowing businesses to grow and create more jobs for Americans as well.[7] U.S. workers, though cheaper to hire, are not always available, interested, or dependable.[8]

By contrast, employers have reported that H-2B employees are consistently reliable and hard-working, and their productivity helps offset the cost of recruiting and hiring them.[9] H-2B employment also correlates with higher U.S. employment rates.[10] Without the program, many employers would go unstaffed, close their doors, and cause “lost income for American businesses, and lost tax revenues” for the States.[11]

The Problem

Despite these benefits, the program’s cumbersome nature discourages employer participation: “[T]he system [is] complicated, time-consuming, costly and inefficient.”[12] Petitioning employers must prove “[t]here are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.”[13] They must make “extensive efforts to recruit U.S. workers,” file documentation with four different government agencies, and foot the bill for guest workers’ visas and transportation costs.[14]

Once the 66,000 annual cap is reached, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) stops accepting petitions and will not issue additional visas until the next year.[15] This means that even after expending significant time and money into the petition process, many employers fail to secure their necessary workforce and are in a worse position than before they applied. Even one small mistake in the “complicated application process can mean delayed approval or visas denied—both extremely costly for employers.”[16] The uncertainty involved in the petition process incentivizes employers to petition for more H-2B workers than they actually need, “just in case their business takes off or some of their workers quit after the quota is hit.”[17] Employers who do so, and whose petitions are approved, further decrease the likelihood of other employers receiving their necessary visas.

Employers may use the premium processing track to “expedite the adjudication of certain forms,” but doing so costs an additional fee of $1,500 per petition.[18] Employers are also financially responsible for guest workers’ roundtrip transportation to and from their home countries, daily meals and lodging, and for each “visa, visa processing, and other related fees.”[19] Finally, businesses often require consultants and lawyers to navigate the process, adding to their costs.[20]

Each employer individually shoulders the full financial burden of this process, because H-2B workers may not “switch employers during their visa terms.”[21] In order for a guest worker to continue working for a second employer after her original visa term ends, the putative secondary employer must file and receive approval for a petition “requesting classification and an extension of the alien’s stay in the United States.”[22] H-2B workers are required to leave the States at the end of their authorized period of stay,[23] so if the secondary petition has not yet been granted, the worker must travel home before turning around and returning to the States for the second job. This unnecessarily duplicative process only adds to employer cost and restricts the employees’ access to stable employment.

The Solution

Visa portability, whereby an H-2B worker may transfer her employment from one authorized employer to another without an intermediate petition process, is the best solution to this problem.[24] Portability would encourage cost-spreading, allowing employers to share in recruitment, visa, and transportation expenses for shared workforces. For example, Colorado’s Steamboat ski resort hires H-2B employees as dishwashers for its winter season, from late November to April.[25] Lindy’s Seafood in Maryland hires H-2B workers as crab pickers from April through December.[26] Visa portability would allow Steamboat to send its H-2B workers to Lindy’s at the end of the ski season for the start of Lindy’s crab-processing season, as long as both companies proved a seasonal need for temporary workers and were approved by USCIS. Steamboat and Lindy’s could share the costs of the visa petition and travel expenses and provide workers with a longer term of employment. This would increase efficiency and make H-2B employment more affordable—benefitting both the workers and U.S. businesses.

The Department of Labor has already set the stage for this change by allowing for broader dissemination of job offer information.[27] It has instructed that job orders may be stored as electronic records in an electronic job registry, resulting in a “complete, real-time record of job opportunities for which H-2B workers are sought.”[28] H-2B employers could use a similar system to match approved employers with available employees who are already in the States.[29] Additionally, requiring H-2B workers to fulfill their contract with the petitioning employer before accepting a new job would assuage any employer fears of H-2B workers jumping to new employers upon arrival.[30]


The H-2B visa program is an essential supplement to the U.S. workforce and economy, enabling small- and mid-size businesses to successfully perform seasonal and temporary operations in essential industries. Far from taking jobs away from U.S. workers, H-2B employees comprise a small segment of the workforce and their employment correlates with higher U.S. worker employment. In order to increase the program’s feasibility for businesses and ease its burden on both employers and foreign workers, the best solution is a policy of visa portability. This solution would increase efficiency, reduce costs, and provide more stable employment for a crucial segment of the workforce.

[1] H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers, USCIS (May 29, 2020),

[2] Kati L. Griffith, United States: U.S. Migrant Worker Law: The Interstices of Immigration Law and Labor and Employment Law, 31 Comp. Lab. L. & Pol’y J. 125, 135 (2009).

[3] Madeline Zavodny & Tamar Jacoby, The Economic Impact of H-2B Workers 4 (2010),

[4] Id. at 23.

[5] Charles C. Mathes, Note, The Department of Labor’s Changing Policies Toward the H-2B Temporary Worker Program: Primarily for the Benefit of Nobody, 80 Fordham L. Rev. 1801, 1814 (2012).

[6] Id.

[7] Zavodny & Jacoby, supra note 3, at 10.

[8] See id. (explanation by a forestry contractor that he has “hired dozens and dozens of American workers. Only a handful have ever shown up for work. Of those, we have never had one last more than two days.”).

[9] Zavodny & Jacoby, supra note 3, at 10.

[10] Id. at 2.

[11] Mathes, supra note 5, at 1813. See also Suzanne Monyak, Trump to Suspend New Work Visas Through 2020, Law360 (June 22, 2020, 3:37 PM), (reporting that in June 2020, President Trump restricted visas to “free up 525,000 jobs for Americans,” but he exempted food supply and seafood industry H-2B workers, evidencing the U.S. economy’s need for these workers and demonstrating that they do not compete with U.S. workers for jobs).

[12] Zavodny & Jacoby, supra note 3, at 20.

[13] Forms: H-2A, H-2B, and H-3 Visa, USCIS (Dec. 1, 2020),

[14] Zavodny & Jacoby, supra note 3, at 2.

[15] Zavodny & Jacoby, supra note 3, at 6.

[16] Id. at 20.

[17] Id. at 21.

[18] Premium Processing Fee Increase Effective Oct. 19, 2020, USCIS (Oct. 16, 2020),

[19] Fact Sheet #78F: Inbound and Outbound Transportation Expenses, and Visa and Other Related Fees under the H-2B Program, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Wage and Hour Div. (2015),

[20] Zavodny & Jacoby, supra note 3, at 21. See also Griffith, supra note 2, at 136 (revealing the admission of some employers that “they opt out of the H-2 program entirely and hire undocumented workers because the ‘process is too expensive, taxing, and time-consuming’”).

[21] Griffith, supra note 2, at 135.

[22] 8 C.F.R. § 214.2 (h)(2)(i)(D) (2020).

[23] Fact Sheet #69: Requirements to Participate in the H-2B Program, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, Wage and Hour Div. (2009),

[24] See Mathes, supra note 5, at 1812–13 (explaining that legislation was introduced in 2005 that allowed “temporary guestworkers to change employers without penalty,” but the bill was never voted on).

[25] Employment FAQ, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp, (last visited Jan. 6, 2021).

[26] Job Opportunities, Lindy’s Seafood, Inc., (last visited Jan. 6, 2021).

[27] Temporary Non-Agricultural Employment of H-2B Aliens in the United States, 77 Fed. Reg. 10038, 10128 (Feb. 21, 2012).

[28] Id.

[29] Mathes, supra note 5, at 1850.

[30] Id.