For nearly 25 years, Donnie and Michelle Massie have been on the ride of their life, traveling with their family-run carnival, Alpine Amusement, across the Midwest.
But now they say it may come to an end. The Massies, like other seasonal American businesses including landscaping and crabbing, have for years relied on a federal seasonal worker program — known as H-2B visas — to keep their midway moving. But this year, they were denied the 44 visas they requested to bring in their usual workers from Mexico and South Africa.
Their small business has seven full-time workers, and they were able to salvage some of their season last year when they were awarded visa workers late. Still, they estimate that they’ve lost almost $400,000 in revenue between last year and this year so far.
“I’m trying to talk without crying, but it’s very hard,” Michelle, 49, said in a phone interview from her home in Naperville, Illinois. “We have contracts to fill.”
Alpine Amusement’s pain is one that other industries say has become acute under President Donald Trump, even in states and counties he won by promising to have the backs of small-business owners. Across the country, companies that depend on the temporary worker program have been scrambling to stay afloat because of the limited number of visas, coupled with the high demand this year.
In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration shifted the program from a first-come, first-serve-based model of doling out visas to a lottery system, making it more difficult for businesses to access temporary foreign workers. Congress, which created and oversees the guest worker program, has set the limit on these visas at 66,000 and divides them between the summer and winter seasons, but has rebuffed calls to eliminate or permanently raise the cap.
Instead, Congress allowed the Department of Homeland Security to make additional temporary visas available this year, the third year in a row it has done so.
After facing the additional demand for H-2B workers, the Trump administration released an additional 15,000 visas in May. But it’s still not enough, industry organizations and business owners say, because the entire system is badly in need of an overhaul.
Thousands of miles from the Massies, Matt Davis, 40, recounts everything he did to find American workers for his Plano, Texas, landscaping business: Newspaper advertisements. Flyers in the local hardware store. Notices through the state’s unemployment office. Craigslist. Word of mouth.
“If I can fill my workforce with local guys, I would do that. I want to hire Americans first because it’s easier for me, but most of the American workers don’t want temporary jobs,” Davis told NBC News.