It should be the busiest time of the year at LeBeau Gardens, a full-service plant and home center in Downington, Pa.
Instead, with too few workers to fully staff its lucrative landscaping operation, the business could wither and die.
Why? Ask the Trump administration, says founder and owner Susan LeBoutillier.
She depends on a federal government program that allows her to legally hire seven documented seasonal workers from Mexico, men willing to dig, lift, carry and haul for the $14.40 an hour that no American would accept, she said. Now, as spring slips away, LeBoutillier’s crew is stuck on the other side of the border, their passage mired in Homeland Security limbo.
She figures she already has lost $100,000 in landscaping sales during April. “I’m sort of panicked,” LeBoutillier said at her store. “For me, it’s the difference between paying my mortgage and not paying the mortgage.”
In the past, her workers arrived by April 4. Last year, they came on April 15. Now she’s hearing maybe early May — or maybe not at all.
It’s the same for crab and oyster companies in Maryland, ranches in Utah, resorts in Colorado, and country clubs in New York — businesses that have low-skill job openings and depend on foreigners to fill them. President Donald Trump’s enterprises have used the program to hire seasonal workers, including for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Today, the H-2B visa program has become a battleground in the larger war over immigration, and many small businesses are caught in the middle.
Almost half of seasonal employees work as landscapers and groundskeepers at garden centers and golf courses, while others labor as maids, meat cutters, cooks, waiters, and construction laborers. About 70 percent come from Mexico.
These non-agricultural workers are allowed to enter the U.S. for temporary work under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Congress capped the H-2B program at 66,000 workers. Texas hires the most, about 17,100 workers, almost 15 percent of the national total. Pennsylvania ranks sixth, with 4,377 workers, or 3.7 percent. New Jersey doesn’t crack the top 10.
Last year, the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor made what they called a one-time release of 15,000 additional visas. Congress’ $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill permitted Homeland Security to offer potentially thousands more, but so far, none of those have been issued.
The problem, some say, is that adding more foreign workers has angered some of Trump’s staunch supporters, who demand he fulfill his “America first” campaign promises.
“Employers can’t expect unending access to cheap foreign workers,” said David Ray, communications director for FAIR, the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. “There’s an enormous supply of unemployed American workers.”
LeBoutillier would prefer to hire Americans, if only to save recruiting costs. This year she advertised garden-laborer jobs for any American who had the minimum three-months experience. Nine people applied. Five showed up for interviews. Three had no experience.
Two were hired. They lasted a couple of days, after experiencing the rugged demands of the job.