Since he first announced that he was running for president, Donald Trump has argued that immigration is bad for American workers and businesses. Yet some of his toughest critics are small businessmen who voted for him but rely on guest workers.
Consider Eddie Devine, a Trump voter who runs a landscaping business in central Kentucky. In a recent story for the Lexington Herald-Leader, he says that it's been years since he could find American workers willing to cut grass for $12 an hour and that he relies on low-skilled seasonal employees who enter the country legally under H2-B visas. That costs him an extra $18,000 a year, but that's the cost of doing business. Now, though, his business is now on the chopping block:
Restrictions on guest-worker visas, which began during President Barack Obama's second term as immigration became a hot issue for conservatives, have gotten worse under Trump. And it's even more of a problem now that the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in years.
Devine says he lost a $100,000 account because he didn't have enough men to do the job. He's worried he may be out of business next year if things don't improve.
Then there's Ken Morin, who builds decks, garages, and room additions:
"Last year we about went bankrupt. The workers we were supposed to get in March didn't show up until August because they couldn't get visas."
Monin applied for eight H-2B workers this year, but he isn't optimistic he will get any. Employers seeking H-2B workers must prove they have advertised and tried unsuccessfully to hire local workers.
"Americans don't want most of these jobs," said Monin, who pays his workers about $17 an hour. "I've been in this business 20 years. It's hard, hot work."
The H-2 system has been in place since the early 1950s, with H-2A visas covering agricultural workers and H-2B visas covering non-ag workers. There are 66,000 visas allotted annually for the H-2B program and the government has received over 150,000 applications from potential employers. Without changing the law, the government could expand the number of annual H-2B visas to 130,000, but there's no reason to expect that will happen. Businessmen like Devine and Morin are screwed if they can't get visas for workers. They either have to make do with far fewer workers or raise their pay (and thus the price customers pay) to unsustainable levels. As a businessman himself, Trump knows this struggle—he's used nearly 150 H-2B workers at his various businesses since 2016.
The Trump administration is also screwing over businesses that use highly educated or specialized "workers in short supply" who are covered by H-1B visas. As Stuart Anderson writes at Forbes, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a memo earlier this year that makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for companies to hire foreign professionals. That's because the USCIS and the Department of Labor each have jurisdiction over the process and now have diametrically opposed definitions of what information a prospective employer needs to provide
A new lawsuit filed by a group representing small- and medium-sized business owners hopes to change that. The government gives out 65,000 H-1B visas a year, a total that was reached in early April. Unlike businesses that do agriculture, landscaping, and construction, many firms employing H-1B visa workers will likely outsource work to foreign countries when possible.
Other analysts find that Trump's increasingly strident crackdowns on immigration—including the deportation of parents of "Dreamers" brought here illegally as children, and the tighter limits on immigrants here legally under "temporary protected status" laws—are squeezing low-margin, labor-intensive providers of assistance to elderly and disabled people.
Eddie Devine, the Kentucky landscaper, says "I feel like I've been tricked by the devil" and "I feel so stupid" for having voted for Trump. You don't need to share those exact sentiments to appreciate how restrictive immigration policy, based on easy demarcations between Americans and foreign workers, really screws up domestic labor markets, punishing U.S. business owners and customers alike.