Home Economy With Jobs to Fill, Businesses Play the Visa Lottery

With Jobs to Fill, Businesses Play the Visa Lottery

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Ronda Fox finally got the news last week, three months into planting season: The federal government approved her application to employ more than a dozen temporary foreign workers for her family-owned landscaping business in Aurora, Colo.

She had hoped to have her crew in place by April 1, but had initially lost out in this year’s visa lottery. “Better late than never,” Ms. Fox said.

In Centennial, a quick car ride away, Phil Steinhauer faced the same hiring challenge for his landscaping business. But his application for 150 temporary foreign workers was selected through the federal lottery in the first round, and his hires were in place when the season started.

Mr. Steinhauer, though, is far from satisfied with the way he had to fill the jobs. “You can’t build a business on a lottery,” he said.

A certified public accountant, Ms. Fox shakes her head when she hears economists insist that theory dictates that wages should rise until they are high enough to attract workers.

Her company, All Seasons Landscaping, is in Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, which wraps around Denver like a question mark. It has an unusually high proportion of college graduates and an unusually low unemployment rate; the average annual salary for workers who are not self-employed is nearly $63,000.

Landscape work is harsh. Digging in the dirt and heaving equipment in blistering heat produces aching backs and raw hands. Low-skilled workers can earn a similar wage making a sandwich or working in an air-conditioned warehouse.

“We put a $5,000 ad in The Denver Post, and we didn’t have one applicant,” Ms. Fox said. Paying a wage high enough to attract local workers would put her out of business, she said, because her customers would balk at the resulting price increases.

Like Ms. Fox and other landscapers, Mr. Steinhauer signed planting contracts with customers last year based on the assumption that his crews would earn roughly $15 an hour. “These are unskilled positions,” he said. “Would you pay $50 to plant a bush in your garden?”

“With the economy as good as it is, I don’t know many families who are telling their kids to become landscape laborers,” Mr. Steinhauer said. “And who wants to work a job where you get laid off in November and then come back?”

Creating jobs, particularly for neglected blue-collar working men, and reducing immigration have been at the center of President Trump’s agenda and a lodestar for his supporters. Lower jobless rates support the Republicans’ case that the economy is improving. And the increasingly hard line on immigration provides a framework for the administration’s policies on legal as well as illegal migrants.

These political crosscurrents are coursing through the Sixth District, which has one of the most closely watched midterm House races. A revision of the district’s boundaries combined with waves of immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia, Mexico and Nepal in recent decades has turned it into one of the state’s most diverse. It is one of 25 districts that sent a Republican representative to Washington in 2016 at the same time it gave Hillary Clinton a plurality — in this case, by a nine-point margin.

Defeating the five-term Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, is a critical part of the Democrats’ push to win back the House in November.

Mr. Coffman distanced himself from Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign, though he has supported him in more than 95 percent of his House votes. On immigration, Mr. Coffman has taken a more moderate line, supporting, for example, a permanent solution for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented adults who were brought to the United States as children. And he recently called on the president to part ways with his adviser Stephen Miller over the family separation issue.

Ms. Fox, who describes herself as a fierce independent and a “conservative by nature,” said that the Dreamers should be protected from deportation and that she was disturbed that children were being separated from their parents at the border.

“I don’t agree with any of it,” said Ms. Fox, who wants a long-term immigration policy. She hasn’t settled on her midterm vote yet, but said she liked Mr. Coffman.

As for the H-2B program, Mr. Steinhauer and Ms. Fox said they did not blame Mr. Trump for its flaws, noting that there were similar problems under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

“I put the blame on Congress,” Ms. Fox said. “The whole issue is so toxic. Everyone in politics is afraid to do anything.”

Follow Patricia Cohen on Twitter: @patcohenNYT.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: With Jobs to Fill, Businesses Play The Visa Lottery. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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