Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, is hoping he can find a rare area of common ground between Republicans and Democrats on immigration with a bipartisan bill that would streamline the use of temporary visa programs — something he believes will be a first step to more bipartisan work on the issue in Congress.
The HIRE Act would focus on the H-2A agricultural worker visa program and the H-2B seasonal worker program, which grants temporary legal status to nonagricultural service workers in seasonal areas such as landscaping, hotel and restaurant work.
The bill would expand the length of the visas from one to three years and would allow officials to waive an in-person interview in order to renew their visa status for an additional three years.
In an interview with Fox News Digital, Gonzales said the bill was a crucial tool to end the border crisis and said his aim is ‘to get Congress working again.’
‘And we always talk about immigration. We always talk about border security. And a district like mine that’s living it, we want this nightmare to end, and part of the nightmare ending is Congress having a role to play in this and encouraging legal routes where people can come over. That way, we can double down on illegal immigration,’ he said.
‘It’s narrow in scope, but it’s meant to be narrow in scope. You have to crawl before you can walk. You got to walk before you can run,’ he said.
The bill does not increase the number of workers admitted each year, but the Republican congressman says it would cut down on the amount of red tape faced by employers and immigrants. He noted that COVID-19 showed how tools like Zoom could be used to interview virtually.
‘There’s all these ways where you can have this direct interaction with an applicant, ask the questions you need, so you don’t need to change any of that, and then streamline it to the fact where you get rid of the bureaucracy, the red tape,’ he said. ‘Why does somebody have to mail in an application? Why can’t they go online and have a pull-down menu? Why does it have to be so complex?’
As for lengthening the time of the visas from one year to three years, he said it would make the route more attainable for small businesses.
‘Moving it from one to three years makes it more inexpensive for employers to hire these folks, and it encourages people to go through the legal route,’ he said.
The bill has been in development for over two years, and now has 20 co-sponsors — 11 Republicans and nine Democrats — and he says he is still pitching it to lawmakers. He said that by focusing on visas rather than citizenship, voting or access to social services, he’d found the ‘sweet spot’ in this Congress.
It has also picked up the support of a number of labor, immigration and business groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Immigration Forum, Americans for Prosperity and the Chamber of Commerce — which said the bill ‘will help hospitality firms, agricultural commodity producers, forestry companies, seafood processors, landscapers, and many other businesses find seasonal workers for hard-to-fill jobs.’
‘So it’s not a right or a left or a center bill. It’s kind of a mix of all. And I think that’s exactly the tone that needs to happen if we’re going to pass something in this Congress,’ Gonzales said.
Some Democrats and Republicans have previously expressed concern about the abuse of H-2 visa programs — particularly H-2B — arguing that it incentivizes unscrupulous employers to take foreign workers over Americans.
‘We’ve long expressed concerns that perverse incentives created by the H-2B program encourage lower wages and poor working conditions for American and immigrant guest workers alike,’ Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa said in a statement in 2021 opposing the raising of the H-2B cap.
This bill does not tackle reforms to the program, but Gonzales says the bill is a starting point in a coalition to take broader steps in the future.
‘The goal is always: ‘How do you get Congress to work again?’ Come together in a real tangible way, and move the ball forward, and stop pointing the blame at somebody else, round and round we go, ‘It’s the president’s fault’, ‘No, it’s Congress’s fault’ is it’s always somebody else’s fault but our own.’
‘This is a big first step, but it’s almost a down payment, if you will, a down payment in a more robust immigration reform,’ he said. ‘But it starts here.’