Each year, tourists flock to Maine as summer peaks. You can set your watch to it. From Ogunquit Beach to Acadia National Park, almost 37 million visitors come to the Pine Tree State annually to experience our exceptional restaurants, beautiful beaches, and pristine public lands. In 2017, 5.3 million people came to Maine for the first time, and we expect they’ll be back for more. To keep up with this influx of travelers, our tourism industry relies on seasonal workers.
Unfortunately, we have faced a serious labor shortage in recent summers. Businesses have been forced to limit hours of operation, scale back service, and sometimes shut down operations entirely because they don’t have the necessary staff. With Maine’s unemployment rate at a record low, fewer people are available to fill these seasonal positions. That’s where the federal H-2B foreign worker visa program has become a lifeline for our state’s robust tourism industry.
H-2B visas are for temporary, non-agricultural workers to fill short-term seasonal openings in the United States. Employers apply for H-2B worker visas and have to prove there aren’t sufficient local workers to fill their need. This program began nationally in 1952 and has since become an important tool for seasonal businesses across Maine.
Demand for H-2B visas has far outpaced supply. By law, the annual allocation of H-2B visas has remained capped at 66,000 nationwide. In the last three years, Congress has responded by giving the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to issue a greater number. Unfortunately, DHS has only provided businesses with 64% of the visas they’ve been approved for. This isn’t enough for Mainers.
I’ve long been a proponent of lifting the federal cap on H-2B visas. Along with the rest of the Maine delegation and a bipartisan group of my congressional colleagues, I’ve pushed the Trump administration to adjust the H-2B visa cap. I’ve secured several bipartisan amendments in the House Appropriations Committee to accomplish this goal.
One of my amendments would change the way we distribute H-2B visas. Another requires DHS to raise the cap on H-2B visas. While I am grateful these measures moved forward, we need long-term solutions rather than just short-term patches.
H-2B visas do not allow workers to immigrate to the United States; rather, they are only allowed to temporarily work here.
Workers are denied re-entry to the U.S. if they overstay their visas or otherwise violate American laws. These visas have nothing to do with the larger immigration debate our nation is having—H-2B workers want to return to their home countries. Unfortunately, this visa program is getting caught up in the politics of immigration in Washington; in reality, the visas just provide opportunity for businesses to scale up and operate at a higher capacity.
One out of every six jobs in Maine is connected to tourism. As your Congresswoman and the owner of a seasonal business myself, I know that lifting the cap on H-2B visas is critical to keeping the tourism industry that draws 37 million people to Maine every single year afloat.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has served Maine's 1st congressional district since 2009.