WASHINGTON - The government will make permanent its changes to a visa program that brings foreign workers to the U.S. for temporary nonagricultural work.
The aim is to streamline and simplify the application process and increase worker protections, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in an interview Wednesday.
The H2-B visa program allows such foreign workers into the United States for specific seasonal jobs, provided the employer cannot find Americans for the work and that the foreigners return home within 10 months. Workers in the program must pass a background check and there are provisions to ensure they return home.
The visa program is capped at 66,000 workers per year, and places workers mostly in landscaping, hospitality and other industries.
The changes include eliminating duplicative applications at the state and federal levels, requiring employers to attest — under the threat of fines and disbarment — that they are following all rules, and letting the government decide what workers should earn.
Employers will be prohibited from passing along the cost of the new proposals to their workers, and the Labor Department, for the first time, will be able to enforce terms and conditions of temporary foreigner employment and fine violators.
The Homeland Security Department currently is responsible for enforcing these regulations, but the Labor Department has more expertise in the area, Chao said. The Labor Department also will become the final word on labor certification applications.
The final changes will be in the Federal Register on Friday and go into effect mid-January.
The Labor Department first made public its plans to change the H2-B visa rules in May.
Also to be published Friday are the department's changes to H2-A visas, which are used by the agriculture industry to hire temporary farm workers.
Regulatory changes in the waning days of the Bush administration will make it harder for President-elect Barack Obama to change course on some policies favored by Republicans and businesses.
Chao, the only original member of Bush's Cabinet to stay on through both terms, would not say what she will do after leaving government. "I hope that I will continue to make a contribution to our country, and increasing the competitiveness of America's work force," she said.