U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on March 10 announced that the visa program for temporary and seasonal non-agricultural skilled or unskilled temporary workers, H-2B, would not process any further applications this fiscal year. This will be the first year the 66,000 cap on such visas has been reached since the cap's creation in 1990. H-2B visas are issued for a maximum of 10 months, and employers are required to provide evidence that U.S. workers are not available to fill the positions and that regional labor standards will be met. In years past, some employers used H-2B visa holders to fill seasonal tourism and construction jobs. However, with the program's cap already reached due to expanded demand, these employers are concerned that it will be difficult to fill such positions this summer. Meanwhile, some lawmakers argue that raising the H-2B cap may result in depressed wages and a degradation of labor standards.
The United States plans to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in the skies over the border between Arizona and Mexico as part of a new initiative by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The program, unveiled by Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson on March 16, is called the Arizona Border Control (ABC) Initiative and aims to clamp down on illegal border crossings. While the initiative's principal focus is border security, one of its byproducts is expected to be border safety (prevention, search, rescue, and identification programs geared towards finding hazardous border crossing areas that might be dangerous to migrants). ABC will partner with law enforcement officers at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels and will use enhanced technology and aviation assets beyond the deployment of the drones. Along with the drones, ABC will also place 200 more patrol agents and 60 Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue agents along the border, with four more helicopters. Funding has also been earmarked for new sensor technology to assist in surveillance and detection of undocumented migrants. The ABC Initiative is expected to cost more than $10 million and will last until the end of fiscal year 2004.
In a departure from previous policies, Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson on March 4 told a congressional panel that the more than six million Mexicans with Border Crossing Cards will be exempt from the US-VISIT registration requirement at land borders. The cards, newly equipped with laser visas, allow the bearer to visit the U.S. legally within 25 miles of the border for up to 72 hours. The holders of such cards have already undergone background checks and been fingerprinted and photographed. (See the May, June, and October 2003 and January 2004 Policy Beats for more information on US-VISIT). Mexicans have used such cards for decades to visit relatives and shop on the U.S. side of the border, making more than 104 million visits last year alone. The announcement was made one day prior to President George W. Bush's meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
In addition, a March 10 proposed interim rule from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in accordance with NAFTA requirements, removed the annual 5,500 numerical cap and the labor condition application requirements for Mexican professionals seeking entry and employment in the U.S. under NAFTA. These changes, which will take effect retroactively from January 1, 2004, make the requirements more comparable to those of Canadians receiving NAFTA visas. In fiscal year 2001, 2,571 Mexicans received these TN (Trade NAFTA) visas. The annual limit for Mexicans has never been reached, in part due to the many requirements they had to meet to qualify for this visa. The requirements led many Mexicans to apply instead for an H-1B visa, which lasts for three years and is renewable for an additional three years.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 1 issued long-awaited rules for implementation of the Safe Third-Country Agreement with Canada, which aims to prevent people from filing asylum applications in both Canada and the United States. Under the terms of the agreement, asylum seekers will be required to make their claims in the first country they enter. This means that asylum seekers trying to enter Canada through the United States will be turned back and told to make their claims in the United States. Exceptions to the agreement will include unaccompanied minors and family members already legally in the country to which the asylum seeker is headed. The agreement's critics on both sides of the border say it will make it significantly harder for refugees to obtain asylum. The agreement is part of the Smart Border Action Plan launched by the U.S. and Canada in December 2001. The plan aims to enhance the security of the U.S.-Canada border while facilitating the legitimate flow of people and goods. It has four broad pillars: the secure flow of people, the secure flow of goods, infrastructure security, and information sharing and coordination in the enforcement of these goals.