IN THE EARLY YEARS of the landscape maintenance company that I owned with my twin brother, we would hire workers locally—both American and Latino. But each year, we struggled to find a sufficient number of willing and able workers.
It wasn’t until several years into running the company that I heard about the H-2B visa nonimmigrant program. The program allows companies to bring in foreign workers for as long as nine months. I saw this program as a way to provide our company with the workers we needed.
The process proved far from easy: Applying for H-2B visas is burdensome and costly, and there’s no guarantee that you will receive approval. The first step, and usually the most difficult, is to receive labor certification. This involves placing help wanted ads in the local newspaper, as well as on the state workforce exchange. The wage offered is the federal prevailing wage for the area. In a good year, I might receive eight to 10 applicants. The majority of the applicants didn’t even show up for the first interview. If any of the applicants are hired, then the number of foreign workers requested is reduced accordingly. Labor certification is issued when it is shown that every attempt to hire an American worker has been made.
The second step involves receiving approval from the USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Following USCIS petition approval, you have to make appointments for the foreign workers to apply for the actual H-2B visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy. At this appointment, the worker is interviewed. If the worker is approved, the visa is issued. The worker then travels into the U.S. to his or her place of employment.
In the first couple of years that I used the program, I would make the 48-hour drive in a 15-passenger van from Maryland to Mexico City. It was a grueling journey, especially through the northern border region of Mexico and as you entered the outskirts of Mexico City. On my travels, I was joined by one of my Mexican workers, who shared in the driving and, more important, communicated with the Federales—the Mexican police force—who would have checkpoints along the route.
I could have done without the stressful journey, but I wanted to ensure that the workers correctly filled out the visa application form (known as the DS-160) and that they arrived at the consulate on time for their interviews. I also wanted to ensure that the workers were successful in passing through U.S. immigration when they crossed the border into the U.S. In later years, I was able to rely on some of the more seasoned workers, who had been through the process many times, to help the others fill out the required forms and to navigate the U.S. consulate.
Over the 17 years that I used the program, there were twists and turns. Each year was a little different, with one obstacle or another thrown at us by the U.S. government. But aside from two years, we were successful. During those two unsuccessful years, we had to hire local workers, reminding us once again just how critical this visa program was to the business. We faced having to find 25 to 30 workers—most of whom weren’t happy with the wages we were offering—and turnover tended to be high.
If our efforts to hire local workers are any guide, these seasonal foreign workers aren’t taking jobs that Americans want. As with many other companies, the guest worker program provided our business with the additional labor needed to manage and grow the company. Without the program, we would not have been as successful as we were.
Nicholas Clements is one of Jonathan’s older brothers. He is retired and lives just outside Washington, DC. His previous blogs include On Our Own, Growing Up (Part III) and Less Green. Follow him on Twitter @MDScaper.