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Trump says hire American. These businesses say they can’t — and foreign labor limits are killing them

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In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration shifted the program from a first-come, first-serve-based model of doling out visas to a lottery system, making it more difficult for businesses to access temporary foreign workers. Congress, which created and oversees the guest worker program, has set the limit on these visas at 66,000 and divides them between the summer and winter seasons, but has rebuffed calls to eliminate or permanently raise the cap.

Instead, Congress allowed the Department of Homeland Security to make additional temporary visas available this year, the third year in a row it has done so.

After facing the additional demand for H-2B workers, the Trump administration released an additional 15,000 visas in May. But it’s still not enough, industry organizations and business owners say, because the entire system is badly in need of an overhaul.

Thousands of miles from the Massies, Matt Davis, 40, recounts everything he did to find American workers for his Plano, Texas, landscaping business: Newspaper advertisements. Flyers in the local hardware store. Notices through the state’s unemployment office. Craigslist. Word of mouth.

“If I can fill my workforce with local guys, I would do that. I want to hire Americans first because it’s easier for me, but most of the American workers don’t want temporary jobs,” Davis told NBC News.

So he turned to the visa program, applying last September to get workers by this spring.

Image: George Hohman in his office
“We’re in damage control mode right now,” said Ohio-based landscaping business owner George Hohman.Rachel Woolf / for NBC News

He was initially denied, but was able to get a late batch of 16 foreign workers from Mexico when the Trump administration released the extra 15,000 visas. Damage was still done — the infusion was too late and he lost about 50 percent of his revenue.

“I don’t think the government should be picking winners and losers,” he said. “I consider myself blessed this year. The only problem is I don’t know what is going to happen next year.”

If the program isn’t reformed soon and he’s denied visas next year, he said, “I’m going to have to call all my customers and say we can’t fulfill your contracts, and close up shop.”

Another landscaper believes the same fate is in store for him and his Ohio-based business.

George Hohman, 51, was able to secure 25 workers from Mexico in mid-July — late into his season —after the extra visas were released.

Some of his customers had switched to his competitors, so he had to terminate a $50,000-a-year contract with a local marketing company and close a satellite office. He’s also seen his recruitment costs skyrocket, estimating his total loss at about $250,000.

“We lost a bunch of revenue that we won’t get back,” he said. “We’re in damage control mode right now.”

Hohman said that the government has not done enough to listen to the plight of seasonal businesses that rely on the foreign visa program, and believes that the immigration debate has hindered reform efforts.

“Do I think they’re doing enough? Absolutely not. Have they heard from us? Absolutely, they have,” Hohman said. “President Trump’s companies use H-2B, and he’s gotten his visas for his companies. I feel like we are pawns in the immigration reform debate.”

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