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Summer resorts around this nation are bracing for a tough season. It's not that tourists will stay away - they're expected to come - the trouble is that workers may not. Many resorts rely on workers from abroad. And the reinstatement of a cap on visas for temporary workers has some in the hospitality industry expecting catastrophe. Here's Fred Bever of Maine Public Radio.
FRED BEVER, BYLINE: It's pretty quiet right now in Ogunquit, Maine. But Sarah Diment, owner of The Beachmere Inn, says come summer, a surge of tourists transforms it into a bustling New England ocean resort colony. And they are accompanied by an influx of foreign workers.
SARAH DIMENT: Most of the women that have worked for us have come from Jamaica. And they come, they work, they buy. It's insane amount of goods that they ship home. And then they go home every year.
BEVER: But prospects are dim for their return. A cap was just reached on the number of short-term work visas provided under the H2B program. Those visas bring in low-skilled labor for non-agricultural jobs that American employers say they can't fill closer to home - mostly landscaping, seafood processing, housekeeping and other hospitality services.
The program provides roughly 66,000 of the visas. And some years, including last, Congress has allowed more - but not this year. Southern tier states such as Florida have already secured workers. But many resorts with later seasons won't make it into the queue. Diment says she's likely to close up whole sections of The Beachmere, cancel reservations booked long ago and possibly lay off local staff.
DIMENT: If I have to take out 20 rooms out of inventory, then do I really need five people in our maintenance department? Do I really need eight people at the front desk? Not only would it impact my guests, but it would potentially impact what we do here as a hotel to stay open with everyone else.
BEVER: Those concerns have caught the attention of a bipartisan coalition of legislators who wants an audit of the H2B program to ensure all available visas are issued. Among them, Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican.
SUSAN COLLINS: I think it's important to realize that even in this environment, where immigration issues have become so controversial, that these are essentially guest workers.
BEVER: Collins also wants more visas allotted for returning workers. But efforts to expand the program are likely to be caught in the larger immigration debate and divide Republicans. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, condemned the program last year when he was Alabama's senator.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Our focus needs to be on getting Americans back to work, not on seeing how many foreign workers we can bring to the United States.
BEVER: Progressive groups also oppose the program. They point to evidence of abuses, unenforced payscale requirements, for instance, which can hurt wages for American jobseekers. And because the visas commit workers to a single employer, opponents say there's a power imbalance that puts workers at risk of deportation if they try to protest any mistreatment. Congressional supporters of the visa program still may try to attach expansions to a coming budget measure.
One major wildcard - President Trump. Buy American and hire American has been his mantra. But he's also hired dozens of H2B workers for his properties, including Mar-a-Lago, which he's dubbed the winter White House. For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine.
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