05/01/2017 3:48PM

Budget deal would allow more visas for backstretch workers

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A bipartisan federal budget agreement reached Sunday night includes language that raises a cap on the number of nonagricultural worker visas that can be issued this year, quelling concerns in the racing industry, at least temporarily, that the federal government would cut back on a source of visas critical to backstretch workers.

Although the agreement still needs to be approved by both houses of Congress prior to a Friday deadline, the proposal’s immigration components signaled that the federal legislature does not intend to align itself with the hard-edged rhetoric on immigrant workers coming from the presidential administration. In addition to backstretch workers, the nonagricultural visas, which are known as H2-B visas, are largely issued to laborers working at hotels and landscaping companies.

The proposal allows the current cap of 66,000 workers to be raised to approximately 130,000 workers at the discretion of the secretary of Homeland Security and secretary of Labor in the determination of an “economic need” of an industry. Lobbyists for companies employing large numbers of laborers who require H2-B visas, such as hoteliers, pushed hard for the raising of the cap, which would apply to visas issued through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

Alex Waldrop, the chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which conducts federal lobbying efforts on behalf of the racing industry, estimated that the racing industry currently accounts for “only 1 or 2 percent” of the total number of H2-B visas that are issued annually. The vast majority of those workers are employed by trainers on U.S. backstretches (farm workers are covered under a separate visa program).

“It’s good news, but it’s temporary, and there is still a lot of work to be done,” Waldrop said Monday.

Horsemen had raised concerns over the past several months that backstretch workers would be harder to find under any curtailment of the nonagricultural visa program. The visas are granted to nonresident workers, and previous administrations had raised the cap by allowing workers who had previously worked in the U.S. to apply for limited annual renewals.