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Trump lifted the cap on H-2B worker visas. Then his businesses asked for 76 of them.

Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This week, the Trump administration defied its “America First” rhetoric with a policy change that would make it easier for companies to hire guest workers from foreign countries. The Trump Organization is already poised to benefit from it.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security raised the cap on H-2B visas for foreign guest workers from 66,000 visas per year to 81,000.

On Thursday — just three days later — Trump’s properties told the Department of Labor that they wanted approval to hire 76 guest workers using those visas.

The policy change was surprising. Trump has criticized other guest-worker programs for supposedly taking away jobs from Americans. He has resisted calls from the tech industry to expand the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers. He hasn't increased visas in the H-2A program for seasonal farmworkers, even though the agriculture industry has lobbied for it. He even delayed the launch of a startup visa program that Obama created to help foreign tech entrepreneurs start businesses in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security said the visa cap was lifted to help American companies "suffering irreparable harm" because they can't find enough American workers to fill temporary jobs at hotels, ski resorts, and landscaping companies.

Some of those companies are Trump’s. For years, his golf clubs and resorts on the East Coast have relied on hiring foreign workers to serve patrons during the summer months (in New York) and the winter months (in Florida).

On Thursday, the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, said it wanted to hire 15 housekeepers for $10.33 an hour; 20 cooks for $13.34 an hour; and 35 servers for $11.88 an hour. The Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, was asking for six cooks to hire for $13.34 per hour. These requests are published in a database updated by the Department of Labor.

The visa policy change was an example of one way the Trump administration can shape policy and the Trump Organization can profit — whether or not that’s what they intended to do. The visa cap was lifted with permission from Congress, after a change to the program that would make it more difficult for employers to bring in as many guest workers as they used to. But because Trump has refused to divest himself from his businesses, he will end up profiting from decisions his government makes.

Trump’s own properties don’t follow his “America First” rhetoric

Business competition for the limited number of H-2B visas has been especially fierce this year. Many guest workers who had worked in the US on the visas before didn’t used to count toward the cap for 66,000 new visas. But Congress changed those rules so that returning workers did count. Under pressure from the hospitality industry, Congress told the administration it could add more visas if needed. DHS did.

Now Trump's properties are competing for the limited number of visas too.

Since 2015, Trump properties on the East Coast have made a least 24 requests to hire H-2B guest workers, according to a search of the Department of Labor's database. And some of these requests sought up to 30 workers, including bartenders, pool attendants, restaurant hostesses, housekeepers, and servers.

In April, staff at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York, sought approval to hire eight foreign servers for eight months. The golf resort was looking for servers who were available to work about 35 hours a week, including shifts at night, and on weekends and holidays. They would pay at least $14.08 an hour.

Last year, the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles, Florida, sought to hire 20 servers for at least $10.36 an hour and 10 assistant servers for $11.13 an hour. In the certification document, the applicant described the reason the resort needed the foreign workers for nine months (the limit is generally one year):

"In order to meet the increased demand in guest services during our peakload season we must be sufficiently staffed, which is why we are investing in the H-2B program again. We participated in the H-2B program last year, and our need for temporary Servers is real," the report said.

The application did not describe any efforts to first hire American workers, as required under the program.

Guest worker programs have long been controversial

Congress created the H-2B visa program in 1990 to help nonfarm businesses that had trouble finding seasonal workers. For many years, the number of requests never exceeded the 66,000 limit. By 2000, competition for the visas had grown more intense as more businesses became comfortable with the process. Most of the workers brought over have few skills and come from poor countries. In 2014, most H-2B workers came from Mexico, with Jamaica and Guatemala sending many too. Employers in Texas hired most of them.

The H-2B program — like other guest worker programs— has long drawn the ire of organized labor. The US Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly told Congress that there aren’t enough Americans willing to take temporary jobs at amusement parks, ski resorts, and hotels.

But unions say that’s just not true, and that companies are trying to save money on labor costs by exploiting cheap foreign workers at the expense of Americans. (There is hardly any independent research on how temporary workers affect the demand for American labor.)

It's not that easy to hire a guest worker. First, an employer has to ask the Department of Labor to calculate the most common wage for that particular job in that particular location. After getting a response a few weeks later, employers have to send a work order to the state’s workforce agency, detailing the position the business is looking to fill, the qualifications required, and the prevailing wage.

The next required step is to advertise the job, for 10 days, where the positions are located, and hire all qualified applicants. Once the Department of Labor gives an employer the permission to bring in temporary workers, they have to apply for the workers’ H-2B visas through US Citizenship and Immigration Services. To get the visa, potential workers have to meet with staff from the US Department of State at the closest American consulate in their home countries. They must also pass a criminal background check.

The process is so cumbersome that many US businesses hire a staffing company to do the work for them. Trump properties usually hire the Petrina Group, an international staffing agency with offices in New York.

This year, though, the program is adding on a controversy that wouldn’t have been a problem in any other administration: Some of the workers it brings in will work for a company owned by the president, whose administration made the decision to admit them in the first place.