Colorado ski and tech industries are hopeful for visa reform under Trump | VailDaily.com

Colorado ski and tech industries are hopeful for visa reform under Trump

David O. Williams
Special to the Daily

As Colorado and its ski-resort counties are experiencing record-low unemployment, the Trump administration is cracking down on immigrant labor and foreign work-visa programs, according to representatives from the state's ski and tech industries.

Officials in Colorado's $5 billion-a-year ski industry are closely watching the administration's overall review of the nation's work visa programs and simultaneously lobbying Congress to enact much-needed reform to bring more seasonal foreign workers to ski towns.

"We're all getting our heads around what's likely to move in Washington and what may not move," said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country U.S.A., a trade group that represents 22 of Colorado's ski areas.

"One thing that we're optimistic about is there's new legislation in Congress on H2-B. It pertains to the cap and allowing returning workers to come back under an H-2B visa in subsequent years and not count toward the cap."

“Immigrant entrepreneurs and small-business owners create jobs, pay taxes and are an integral part of the Vail Valley

— and Colorado’s

— labor force.”Chris RomerPresident, CEO of Vail Valley Partnership

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visa caps

The H-2B visa is for seasonal, nonagricultural workers and is capped at 66,000 per year nationally, a number that hasn't been increased in decades. The visas were more common in the ski industry prior to the Great Recession in 2008 but became much more expensive and difficult to obtain during the Obama administration, Mills said.

"The J-1 (visa) has come more to the fore because there are more students looking for cultural exchange opportunities for whom that seasonal piece really works well," Mills said, referring to student cultural exchange visas capped at around 300,000 per year.

But there are also problems with J-1 visas, industry officials say, and the Trump administration is taking aim at that program, as well.

"J-1's are by no stretch a panacea for the ski industry," said Dave Byrd, director of risk and regulatory affairs for the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood. "They're only here for four months and then they leave in March, when we haven't gotten through spring break and Easter. It's enough to make an HR director go crazy."

lowest unemployment rate

Both Mills and Byrd said it's tough for ski areas to find enough workers willing to relocate to pricey resorts with limited housing for seasonal work that sometimes doesn't include health benefits — making H2-B and J-1 visas critical to ski towns.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 2.6 percent, but the rates are even lower than the state average in ski-resort counties. Eagle, Pitkin and Routt counties all had a 1.8 percent unemployment rate as of March, and Summit County came in even lower at 1.3 percent.

Those numbers make immigrant and foreign guest workers all the more vital for local businesses, said Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership.

"Immigrant entrepreneurs and small-business owners create jobs, pay taxes and are an integral part of the Vail Valley — and Colorado's — labor force," Romer said. "Modernizing our visa system and providing a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented people who in many ways help drive our economy — while still securing our borders — will help to support our business community across industry sectors."

Mills is hopeful President Donald Trump will reform and expand seasonal work-visa programs because the president uses seasonal workers to staff his hotels and casinos.

"So, we're optimistic people by nature anyway, and I think that gives us more optimism," Mills said. "What's really unclear is how any immigration issues or immigration-related issues are going to move in Congress because of the politics."

Byrd said the visas have become far too politicized, with "the far right not wanting to bring in foreigners because they think it takes American jobs and the far left with unions and civil rights groups saying H2-B's take jobs from Americans."

But, he added, the seasonal nature of the work means there aren't a lot of U.S. citizens lined up to work at either winter or summer resorts, and Trump, of all people, should know that.

"He said he was going to get rid of the J-1 programs and then his properties start applying to get a ton of J-1's," Byrd said. "So, you can't take him at face value on anything."

Trump has directed the U.S. Department of Labor to "investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut American workers," reviewing all types of guest-worker programs and following up on his anti-immigrant rhetoric from the campaign trail.

high time for reform

Representatives of Colorado's tech, health care and agriculture sectors are also worried about possible changes to the H-1B (high-skilled) and H-2A (seasonal agriculture) visa programs.

Andrew Moriarty, the regional representative for the tech-industry lobbying group fwd.us, said it's high time to reform the decades-old H1-B visa program, which is capped at 85,000 but typically sees three times that many applicants and is exhausted in a lottery in less than a week.

"The H1-B program definitely is a huge part of Colorado's tech industry and beyond the tech industry in the business community there," Moriarty said. "One of the things we see out there is what we see across the country is that there is this skills gap."

A recent report concluded that in Colorado in 2015 there were 15.3 unfilled STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs for every unemployed worker in those fields. But reforms are needed, Moriarty said, to eliminate any fraud in the system, and that will take congressional action.

Overall, Moriarty concurs with other industries that visa reforms are badly needed and that comprehensive immigration reform may be one of the best ways to get there.

"There were substantial updates to (H2-B) visas included in the Senate bill that passed in 2013, and as with a lot of these things, the framework is there and the opportunity is there if Congress can take up the legislation," Moriarty said, referring to the "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill that was co-sponsored by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. That bill passed out of the Senate but never made it to the House floor under former Speaker John Boehner.

"When I've spoken to people who work in agriculture and who work in hospitality and tourism, the same kind of core challenges are there that we find in the high-skilled system, as well," Moriarty said. "It's uncertainty, and they don't know necessarily what the system's going to look like a year from now."

Visa types

• H-2A — The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill seasonal and temporary agricultural jobs; no annual cap.

• H-2B — The H-2B program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary, nonagricultural jobs; capped at 66,000 visas per year.

• J-1 — The Exchange Visitor Program non-immigrant visa category is for individuals approved to participate in work and study-based visitor programs. The J-1 visa offers cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through a variety of programs; capped at around 300,000 visas per year.

• H-1B — The H-1B specialty occupation visa is for non-immigrants planning to work in an occupation that normally requires a bachelor’s degree or higher in a related field of study (e.g., engineers, scientists or mathematicians); capped at 65,000 regular and 20,000 master’s advanced degree visas for 2018.

Sources: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, http://www.uscis.gov; U.S. State Department, j1visa.state.gov