Trump’s Immigration Policy Puts the Squeeze on US Seasonal Employers

Trump’s Immigration Policy Puts the Squeeze on US Seasonal Employers

US President Donald Trump’s efforts to curb the number of both documented and undocumented immigrants coming into the US has done little to stifle demand for foreign talent among US employers, particularly in industries where qualified or willing candidates with US citizenship are harder to find. Trump’s “Hire American” policy is meant to boost wages and employment among Americans by reducing competition from foreign workers, though critics have insisted this would stifle growth and lead to labor shortages.

One industry that has been heavily reliant on foreign talent in recent years is the travel and tourism sector. While the government ended up expanding the number of H-2B guest worker visas by 15,000 in July, the expansion may have been too small and come too late and was too small to help some employers, while other critics said it was unjustified. Now that the first summer season of the Trump administration is drawing to a close, Politico’s Ted Hesson looks at how the sector coped with the new environment, whether by “hiring American,” raising wages, or scaling back their operations:

North American Midway Entertainment, a large traveling-amusement-park company headquartered in Indiana, requested roughly 400 H-2B workers this year, a quarter of its total seasonal workforce. But the Department of Homeland Security reached its 66,000-visa cap before the company could secure the guest workers. Company President Danny Huston said he had to skip three fairs and contract out some ride operations because of the visa shortage. In total, he estimates that North American Midway may have lost as much as $800,000. …

Some employers say they can’t raise wages substantially without pricing their products out of the market. Raz Halili is an owner of Prestige Oysters, a seafood processing outfit with operations in Louisiana and South Texas. He says he lost $3.5 million in sales this year because he got only one-third of the 150 H-2B workers he needed to shuck oysters. Prestige Oysters posted the H-2B worker positions at $9.64 an hour, according to data provided to the Labor Department. That’s $2.39 above the state minimum wage, but $2.63 below the national 2016 average hourly wage for “meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers,” according to [the Economic Policy Institute].

Hesson also hears a counterpoint to these employers’ concerns from the left-leaning EPI’s director of immigration law and policy research Daniel Costa, whose research finds that the shortages of American labor the H-2B is meant to close don’t really exist. “The recruitment standards for the H-2B program aren’t sufficient to give U.S. workers a real crack at the job,” Costa tells Hesson, and narrative of shortages doesn’t account for the fact that wages in the most common H-2B occupations have stagnated or even declined in recent years.

Meanwhile, the H-2B isn’t the only visa program employers in the travel industry are worried about. The J-1 visa, which allows students and other visiting foreigners to work temporarily in certain occupations, mostly in tourism and hospitality. The Trump administration is reportedly considering an overhaul of this program, which has business leaders in the industry worried, Johanna Jainchill reports at Travel Weekly:

J-1 allows more than 300,000 visitors, mostly students, to work temporarily in the U.S. in one of 13 categories. The visitors often work in seasonal and remote tourist areas such as national parks, beach communities and ski resorts. Industry leaders from Martha’s Vineyard to Moab were in panic mode last month, and in a late August conference call with the White House, they urged the administration to keep the program alive.

Andrew Todd, CEO of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the largest national park concession operator, who was on the call, argued in a letter to the administration that eliminating the program “would have a devastating impact” on Xanterra and the national parks and monuments it serves, since more than 20% of its peak summer season workers are J-1 visa holders. …

That is a major concern for beach communities like Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The island is home to 15,000 year-round residents, but its summer population swells to 115,000. Seasonal labor is needed from May to early fall, when more than 1,000 J-1 workers descend on the island, occupying more than a third of the seasonal jobs.