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Hire American? Without foreign workers, a Chesco garden business could wither

As spring slips away, LeBoutillier's crew is stuck on the other side of the border with Mexico, their passage mired in Homeland Security limbo.

Susan LeBoutillier , owner of LeBeau Gardens, a Downingtown landscape design company. LeBoutillier depends on legal, seasonal workers from Mexico to make her business viable. Here she stands behind the sales counter in her shop.
Susan LeBoutillier , owner of LeBeau Gardens, a Downingtown landscape design company. LeBoutillier depends on legal, seasonal workers from Mexico to make her business viable. Here she stands behind the sales counter in her shop.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

It should be the busiest time of the year at LeBeau Gardens, a full-service plant and home center in the heart of Chester County.

Instead, with too few workers to fully staff its lucrative landscaping operation, the Downingtown business could wither and die.

Why? Ask the Trump administration, says founder and owner Susan LeBoutillier.

She depends on a federal government program that allows her to legally hire seven documented seasonal workers from Mexico, men willing to dig, lift, carry and haul for the $14.40 an hour that no American would accept, she said. Now, as spring slips away, LeBoutillier's crew is stuck on the other side of the border, their passage mired in Homeland Security limbo.

She figures she already has lost $100,000 in landscaping sales during April.

"I'm sort of panicked," LeBoutillier said at her West Uwchlan Avenue store. "For me, it's the difference between paying my mortgage and not paying the mortgage."

In the past, her workers arrived by April 4. Last year, they came on April 15. Now she's hearing maybe early May — or maybe not at all.

It's the same for crab and oyster companies in Maryland, ranches in Utah, resorts in Colorado, and country clubs in New York — businesses that have low-skill job openings and depend on foreigners to fill them. President Trump's enterprises have used the program to hire seasonal workers, including for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Today, the H-2B visa program has become a battleground in the larger war over immigration, a proxy in the debate over who should be permitted to enter, live and work in the United States. And many small businesses are caught in the middle.

Almost half of seasonal employees work as landscapers and groundskeepers at garden centers and golf courses, while others labor as maids, meat cutters, cooks, waiters, and construction laborers. About 70 percent come from Mexico.

These non-agricultural workers are allowed to enter the U.S. for temporary work under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Congress capped the H-2B program at 66,000 workers — 33,000 who start their jobs in the first half of the fiscal year (Oct. 1 to March 31) and 33,000 in the second half (April 1 to Sept. 30).

Texas hires the most, about 17,100 workers, almost 15 percent of the national total. Pennsylvania ranks sixth, with 4,377 workers, or 3.7 percent. New Jersey doesn't crack the top 10.

Last year, the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor made what they called a one-time release of 15,000 additional visas. Last month, Congress' $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill permitted Homeland Security to offer potentially thousands more, but so far, none of those have been issued.

Efforts to contact Homeland Security officials for comment were unsuccessful.

"Time is crucial," said Gray Delany, executive director of the Seasonal Employment Alliance, which promotes the guest-worker program. "I'm getting calls daily from employers who say they're close to making decisions about whether to go out of business."

The problem, he and others say, is that adding more foreign workers has angered some of Trump's staunch supporters, who demand he fulfill his "America first" campaign promises.

"Employers can't expect unending access to cheap foreign workers," said David Ray, communications director for FAIR, the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. "There's an enormous supply of unemployed American workers."

An estimated 2 million Americans age 25 and up, without high school diplomas, are unemployed and want to work, he said. But to hire them, he added, employers need to take steps they don't like, like paying higher wages and providing more generous benefits.

Of LeBoutillier's situation, Ray said, "She needs to look a little harder, because the people are there. … If you can find them in Mexico, you can find them in Pennsylvania."

The AFL-CIO doesn't like H-2B either, saying it turns permanent jobs into temporary labor. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls guest-worker programs "close to slavery," because power rests with the employer.

The program requires employers to file registrations and assurances with the government before they are allowed to hire, while foreigners who want work must apply for permission to do so. Some workers can come back to the same jobs several years in a row.

LeBoutillier says she's heard the "Hire American" rhetoric.

But the law already requires her to show she made every effort to hire Americans before turning to temporary foreign laborers.

The irony, she said, is if LeBeau goes under, six American employees will go with it. More could be lost at her suppliers' businesses.

LeBoutillier would prefer to hire Americans, if only to save recruiting costs. Potential employers like her must spend at least $1,000 advertising their jobs in the U.S. And they must pay foreigners' application and transportation costs, generally at least $1,500 per worker.

She has hired foreign workers for the past four years.  This year she twice advertised garden-laborer jobs for any American who had the minimum three-months experience.

Nine people applied.

Five showed up for interviews.

Three had no experience.

Two were hired. They lasted a couple of days, after experiencing the rugged demands of the job.

Where, she wondered, were the Americans supposedly desperate for work?

The pay is $14.40 an hour — roughly double the federal minimum wage, though only about half the average American hourly rate of $26.82.

LeBoutillier notes that while her business teeters, Trump companies have hired H-2B foreigners. Three of his firms posted 144 openings for seasonal jobs from 2016 to 2017, but only one went to an American, a Vox analysis found.

She doesn't need 143 workers. Just seven — in fact, five, because spring weeks have gone by.

LeBoutillier's store glitters with sparkling jewelry and tinkling wind chimes, with garden bells from India and jars of specialty honey from North Carolina. Outside sit lawn statues of praying cherubs and trumpeting elephants, arrayed before a small forest of plants and trees.

But 60 percent of her business is landscaping, the design and construction of unique layouts across Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties. LeBoutillier — raised in the family that ran the defunct Waterloo Gardens on the Main Line — says if she can't meet demand, customers will simply go elsewhere.

"I would seriously consider getting out of this type of work if I don't get my guys," LeBoutillier said. "All Homeland Security has to do is release the visas."