For Dulce Solares, realizing her family’s dreams—a car, a house, and a safe environment—meant making the 2,000-mile trip from Guatemala City to northern Michigan.
This month, Solares started her second summer working as a restaurant host at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, earning a monthly paycheck at least five times larger than the $500 or so she typically earned at a call center back home.
The 29-year-old is among thousands of Central American workers granted visas this year for seasonal jobs that US businesses have struggled desperately to fill, from fisheries in western Alaska to landscapers in the Southeast and carnival operators in the Midwest. About half of the nearly 750-person staff at the Grand Hotel this summer have H-2B visas, which allow US employers to hire foreign nationals for temporary, non-agricultural jobs.
“Everyone is coming here to have the American Dream,” Solares said during an interview at the 146-year-old hotel.
Both Democratic and Republican administrations have boosted the number of available H-2B visas in recent years in a bid to ease labor shortages in seasonal industries. Now the Biden administration is aiming to use the program to stem the surge of asylum seekers at the southern border that has become a political flashpoint.
The US reserved as many as 20,000 visas this year for seasonal workers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti as part of a broader expansion that’s nearly doubled the typical number of H-2B visas.
It’s unclear, though, if the limited number of visas—the Biden administration approved 130,000, the maximum allowed—will make a difference in the much larger demand for asylum. The jobs aren’t bridges to permanent residency in the US; workers are expected to return home or find a new sponsor once their seasonal gigs end, and their visas expire in three years.
Labor advocates also warn the near-total dependence on employers that arrange their travel, housing, and livelihood make the transplanted workers vulnerable to exploitation or abuse.
Companies say even a significant expansion of the H-2B visas will only help seasonal industries tread water. The program already pits disparate businesses like resorts, landscapers, and seafood processors against each other in an annual lottery for the visas. To help those industries survive, they say, lawmakers will ultimately have to lift the cap on the number of visas or restore a carveout to let previously approved workers keep coming back.
“It’s important for Congress to see this administration has done all it can with the tools you’ve given them,” said Jon Baselice, vice president for immigration at the US Chamber of Commerce. “Maybe you need to go back to Home Depot and pick up a new power tool.”
Employers’ calls to expand the temporary visa program stem from harsh realities: baby boomers are aging out of the workforce and the number of less-educated Americans has dropped. Stricter immigration enforcement and improving economic conditions have also made it increasingly difficult to fill openings.
Gone are the days when resorts could depend on a stream of college students willing to work a whole summer. And hiring international students on J-1 exchange visitor visas comes with onerous restrictions. Failing to overcome those challenges can have a devastating ripple effect, employers say.
“Had we not had these workers, it’s either limited hours for our restaurants, or not opening them at all,” said David Jurcak, president of the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island. “If we’re not able to open up or have to limit services, it might mean less people coming to the island.”
Fewer visitors in turn means a drop in revenue both for the town and the state, which relies on Mackinac as a magnet. Tourists shelled out a record amount on the car-less island in 2021, merchants said.
That’s why employers are willing to pay for visa workers’ application, recruitment, and transportation costs. The Grand Hotel spent about $700,000 on recruiting in Central America the past two seasons, Jurcak said. Hiring a typical worker on a temporary visa costs employers on the island $4,200 more than adding a US worker, according to the Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
After getting certification from the Department of Labor that there aren’t enough American workers to fill their openings, a business files a petition for the worker with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. That approval allows vetted candidates to apply at a US consulate or embassy for the visa.
Most seasonal jobs last around six months, but many workers seek to stay by transferring to another seasonal US business. A sponsored migrant might spend the summer working at a South Florida beach resort and winter at a Colorado ski lodge.
The Biden administration has boosted visas for Central American workers while also aiding government efforts in the three Northern Triangle countries. The US Agency for International Development spent $8.2 million through its labor pathways programs to help them build recruiting programs, screen applicants, and match available labor to employers.
Ministries in the region initially struggled to recruit workers with the right skill sets, and American consulates were slow to process visas. Two years later, the typical processing time for a work visa has dropped to a week or less in Guatemala, and US employers interview prospective employees at in-country job fairs.
When the new push began, Veronica Birkenstock, president of the labor agency Practical Employee Solutions, started working directly with government ministries there to find and connect seasonal workers with US employers. Applicants were bused to winter job fairs in Guatemala City and San Salvador for in-person interviews with US employers.
“That’s where any growth in this program is coming from,” said Birkenstock, whose Texas-based firm works primarily with employers in landscaping, forestry, and outdoor entertainment. “If you want to grow your company, you’ve got no choice.”
Even with a dramatic increase in available visas, employers still face typical hiring season headaches. Processing delays at the Department of Labor prompted Rep.
That affects customers as well as local employees, Patti Ann Moskwa, the co-owner of two restaurants on the island, said in an interview. One, the Yankee Rebel Tavern, remained closed until the second weekend of the season because its cook staff were still in Florida, finishing winter seasonal jobs that ran through Mother’s Day.
“American workers aren’t going to get hours without the back-of-the-house workers,” Moskwa said. “It means they’re losing money, too.”
One of the biggest challenges for the Northern Triangle initiative was making employers aware of the option and getting them to embrace recruitment in a new region, said Bill Carlson, a senior technical adviser on H-2B visa programs at the Palladium Group, a USAID contractor.
“The question always came up: ‘I’ve been going to Mexico for years. Why should I consider Guatemala?’” Carlson said. “Strategically, it makes sense.”
It made sense to Debbie Elliott after a string of bad luck in the H-2B visa lottery.
A tight labor market and fewer-than-hoped-for temporary visas had forced her Michigan-based carnival company, Elliott’s Amusements, to cut the number of rides it opened in the last two years. She started recruiting workers from Guatemala for the first time last year.
This summer, she’ll have eight Guatemalan workers on H-2B visas, plus 22 from Mexico. Those employees will make up almost half her workforce during the state fair season that runs into September.
“Our industry would be dead in the water without H-2B visas,” Elliott said on an overcast afternoon this month in south Lansing, where one carnival was in the second week of its six-month season.
Manning the mini Ferris wheel that evening was Reginaldo Guevara, a truck driver from La Gomera, Guatemala. In an interview between rides, Guevara said he first learned about the H-2B program in a Facebook ad from the country’s labor ministry. Part of his carnival earnings—employers must pay prevailing US wages—will help cover schooling costs for his three children back home, he said.
Employers that secure H-2B visas through the annual lottery also boost their hiring of US workers, according to research co-authored by Michael Clemens, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, which produces economic research for policy areas like migration. That’s especially true for smaller and more rural businesses.
But even the additional supplemental visas this year didn’t come close to meeting employers’ needs, he said. “It’s a pretty strong sign of extraordinary demand for workers,” Clemens said.
Seasonal businesses and their supporters in Congress see the extra visas as only a short-term solution. House lawmakers plan a renewed push to restore an exemption that would allow employers to bring back former seasonal employees without having them count against the annual H-2B cap.
“That’s the Holy Grail for solving this problem,” said Rep.
Congress exempted returning workers from the visa cap in 2005 through 2007—until the Great Recession hit—and again in 2016. But it hasn’t been extended since, and employers know that the additional visas approved in recent years could be lost depending on political headwinds or a change in administrations.
“There’s not enough workers to do all the jobs in the United States,” Jurcak said.
Expanding the program has garnered bipartisan support in Washington, but supporters have found it difficult to disentangle the legislative proposals from fights over asylum or border security. At the same time, worker advocates and labor unions that have backed President Joe Biden have blasted moves to expand the visas without reforms.
Industries like landscaping or carnivals can pose especially high injury risk, but temporary visa holders face challenges claiming worker compensation, they say. Seasonal jobs also often take workers to rural or small-town locations far from resources to report violations.
And because their status is tied to a single employer, the program can be fraught with abuse. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that the primary industries participating in the H-2B program between 2000 and 2021 stole almost $1.8 billion in wages from their workers, both migrants and US citizens, by underpaying or overworking them.
Others have expressed concern about gender and age discrimination. Without proper policing, the H-2B programs effectively allow employers to favor overwhelmingly younger male workers, said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which advocates for migrant worker rights in the US.
“This is basically a way for people to get around US legal obligations and discriminate without any concerns of being held accountable for illegal behavior,” she said.
Employers contend that H-2B visas are among the most heavily regulated. Still, the Department of Homeland Security has announced plans for upcoming regulations to “modernize and reform” the H-2 programs, including tougher protections against illegal recruitment fees charged to workers.
Improved safeguards must come before any expansion of the program, advocates say.
“If we really want to help Central America, we need to do more than just an announcement of more jobs,” said Gonzalo Mercado-Cisterna, director of transnational programs at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
The US should improve efforts to police illegal fees charged to workers by employers and contractors, and inform workers of their rights through social media platforms because of significant distrust of governments in Central America, he said.
Addressing ‘Root Causes’ of Migration
It’s unclear how much the H-2B initiative will keep Central Americans from seeking asylum in the US. More than 2 million people have fled the Northern Triangle region since 2014 because of poverty and gang violence. Border Patrol agents’ encounters with migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras surpassed 700,000 in fiscal year 2021.
The expansion of the H-2A temporary farmworker program over the past two decades appeared to help slow unauthorized immigration from Mexico, Clemens said. But in Central America, 20,000 visas “are just not enough to meaningfully change that equation,” he said.
It’s also clear that some don’t want to permanently relocate to the United States.
Central American families desperate for better living conditions pay smugglers tens of thousands of dollars to transport them to the US, said Solares, the Michigan restaurant host. The chance to earn a decent wage here through a government-sanctioned pathway might be enough to convince some to avoid those risks, she said.
Much of her Grand Hotel earnings pay for rent, groceries, and medical expenses for her mother, brother and grandfather back home, Solares said. She’s also saving as much as she can to buy a house in Guatemala. She expects it will take three more seasons of work here to reach that goal.
“Everyone wants this opportunity,” she said. “In our countries, if they had more H-2B visas, they’re going to be coming the right way.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
To contact the editors responsible for this story: