WASHINGTON: The Trump administration said it is making an additional 35,000 seasonal guest-worker visas available this year ahead of the busy summer season, the largest increase since President Trump took office.
The additional visas announced Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security will bring the total available this year to 101,000, though the additional visas will primarily be made available to returning workers.
The seasonal-worker visa program, known as H-2B, enables U.S. employers to hire as many as 66,000 foreign workers a year, with the allotments split evenly between the winter and summer seasons. Congress permits the Department of Homeland Security each year to raise that cap by as many as 64,000 additional visas. This year’s cap is slightly higher than the 30,000 workers the administration allowed last year.
DHS is adding new restrictions on the additional visas, which some administration officials and outside critics of the move said could limit how many of the visas will actually be used.
The visas will become available to employers in two tranches: 20,000 immediately and an additional 15,000 for employees beginning work on or after May 15.
Of the 35,000 total, 10,000 will be set aside for workers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the only countries that will be allowed to send new applicants. Those three Central American countries, collectively known as the Northern Triangle, accounted for the majority of asylum seekers crossing the border illegally last year. DHS officials said that providing these people a pathway to work lawfully in the U.S. will reduce the incentive to migrate illegally.
“The department is taking significant steps to promote integrity in the program, combat fraud and abuse, and ensure the supplemental allocation aligns with the national interest,” a DHS spokeswoman said.
The additional visas are being made available ahead of the summer, when demand for short-term work is typically highest. Still, demand has routinely outstripped the available cap. Landscapers, fisheries, county fairs and holiday resorts—including Mr. Trump’s own golf and beach clubs—all use the H-2B program to fill lower-skilled jobs.
The departments of Homeland Security and Labor had for weeks pushed for the cap to be raised by 45,000 additional visas this year, more in line with industry demands.
That higher number of visas had been approved by the White House. But the administration began facing backlash from groups advocating more immigration restrictions after The Wall Street Journal reported on the administration’s plan. Stephen Miller, President Trump’s top immigration adviser, argued internally that proceeding with the higher number risked displeasing the president’s base, which views immigration skeptically, as the election season ramps up, people familiar with the discussions said.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Thursday’s decision comes amid a broader debate inside the Trump administration over legal immigration, with some officials arguing American workers will see wages rise only if foreign workers are prevented from competing with them for jobs and undercutting them, while others believe more immigrants are needed to sustain the economic growth that Mr. Trump will put at the center of his re-election campaign.
Guest workers, like few other issues in immigration, muddle partisan lines, where Republicans who support pro-business initiatives and Democrats who advocate for immigrant rights find themselves at odds with labor unions and immigration hard-liners.
At a Senate hearing last week, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, and James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, pushed acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to raise the H-2B visa cap by the maximum allowed under the law.
“Without immediate and meaningful H-2B cap relief, seasonal businesses will be forced to scale back operations, cancel or default on contracts, lay off full-time U.S. workers and, in some cases, close operations completely,” a bipartisan group of 189 lawmakers wrote in a January letter to Mr. Wolf.
Judith Ogden, who owns a landscaping business on Long Island, said she redoubled her efforts to find American workers during her busy summer season in 2017, when Congress scaled back the annual allowance of guest workers, taking out advertisements and offering slightly more pay. But she said she couldn’t find many takers, and the smaller workforce hurt her business.
“In reality Americans suffer,” she said. “When I can’t get my workers, I have to lay off Americans that I employ and I can’t purchase from local vendors.”
Top White House officials including Mr. Miller have successfully pushed through numerous policy changes that would shrink most forms of legal immigration. The most significant of those policies, the public-charge rule, which will essentially impose an income test on future green-card applicants, took effect last week.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner led a meeting at the White House with several Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, to discuss the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is under review by the Supreme Court.
Republican Senate aides said that senators and members of the administration remain torn over whether they should restart DACA negotiations ahead of a potential high court decision striking down the program, with Mr. Graham arguing in favor of a fix ahead of November’s election and Mr. Cotton arguing forcefully against touching the issue.
Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com