Seasonal foreign workers fill critical landscaping jobs, enabled by easier access to visas

Elizabeth Trovall Apr 27, 2023
Heard on:
Juan Pablo Alvarez Miranda, a seasonal landscaping worker from El Salvador, on the job at Houston's Hermann Park. Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace

Seasonal foreign workers fill critical landscaping jobs, enabled by easier access to visas

Elizabeth Trovall Apr 27, 2023
Heard on:
Juan Pablo Alvarez Miranda, a seasonal landscaping worker from El Salvador, on the job at Houston's Hermann Park. Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace

This spring, landscaping companies across the country are relying on tens of thousands of seasonal workers to complete big-budget beautification projects that represent millions of dollars in revenue.

Facing a tight labor market and with native-born workers showing little interest in labor-intensive seasonal landscaping jobs, industry leaders praised the Joe Biden administration for bringing in workers early in the year and releasing roughly 65,000 additional seasonal worker visas. That brought the total to around 131,000 H-2B visas for fiscal year 2023, though there are thousands of additional H-2B visa holders in the country with exemptions or extensions.

Roughly 40% of seasonal workers are occupied in landscaping or related positions, though the number fluctuates each year, according to the National Association of Landscape Professionals and government data. These visas often go to young Mexican and Central American men, for whom the chance to earn U.S. wages can represent a life-changing increase in family income.

Landscaping “pays very well. Right now the minimum is $15 an hour,” landscaping worker Juan Pablo Alvarez Miranda said in Spanish. Back home in El Salvador, his construction job pays $30 per day.

Alvarez Miranda has returned to Houston for seven years on an H-2B visa doing landscaping work with the company Landscape Art.

Just last year, Alvarez Miranda said he saved up $20,000 on the job — money he’s used to invest in real estate in El Salvador and buy construction tools and equipment he can rent out when he’s on the job back home.

For Alvarez Miranda’s boss, Landscape Art owner Rebecca Dubiski, the roughly $90,000 her company spent last year on travel and visa paperwork for workers has paid off. This year the government awarded her company 25 temporary visas, the most it has ever had.

“Twenty-five visas represents about $3.5 million in revenue for us,” Dubiski said.

When her company didn’t receive any visas from the government, like in 2020, Dubiski said, the company lost out on revenue.

“We can’t do jobs that we’ve already been awarded. We can’t bid new jobs,” she said.

Labor-intensive seasonal jobs have fallen out of fashion among high schoolers, college kids and others, so the landscaping industry has struggled to hire workers, even pre-pandemic. 

“When we’re trying to get somebody into the workforce, in many instances, we are not able to offer them a 12-month, year-round job,” said Andrew Bray, government relations vice president for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

He said it’s even tougher in the current labor market, a pressure eased by the additional visas released by the Biden administration.

His association advocates that Congress raise the cap on seasonal work visas to meet demand, which he estimates is more than 200,000.

Juan Pablo Alvarez Miranda, a seasonal landscaping worker, plants a dwarf wax myrtle in Houston’s Hermann Park. (Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace)

While H-2B landscaper Alvarez Miranda is content with the financial benefits of his seasonal gig, he recognizes that the opportunity comes at a personal cost — living far from his wife and two daughters.

“This is the saddest part about being here, not having family around,” Alvarez Miranda said.

He spends roughly six to 10 months a year in Houston, so he’s had to watch his kids grow up from afar. His remembers that in his first year, he had to leave his daughter, who was just 6 months old at the time. When he came back, she didn’t know who he was.

“She didn’t pay attention to me, she rejected me,” he said.

While in Houston, Alvarez Miranda takes comfort in his housemates, three other temporary workers from his community in eastern El Salvador. They share a two-bedroom apartment and a pickup truck and do pretty much everything together, whether grocery shopping, exchanging money or going to work. They were recruited by a manager for a Houston landscaping company who is from the same area.

Now Alvarez Miranda is working with his employer to get a permanent visa to bring his family to Houston. If it works out, this is kind of a best-case scenario because many employers are not willing to help.

In some cases, companies have exploited seasonal workers, according to Daniel Costa, an immigration expert with the progressive Economic Policy Institute.

“The way the visa works, the employer owns and controls the visa, they apply for it. The worker is really tied to that employer, some would say ‘indentured’ to that employer, for those six or seven months,” said Costa, who advocates for reforms to the H-2B system to improve wages and conditions for workers.

“That worker is not going to ask for more money, that worker is not going to ask for time off to take their child to the doctor or on a vacation, because of the way the rules are,” he said. “That sort of puts a general downward pressure on the wages and working conditions of other workers in that occupation.”

Landscaping worker Jose Filiberto Garcia Avila is now a Houston resident. After being an H-2B seasonal worker, Garcia Avila successfully applied for a permanent visa. (Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace)

Recruiters in workers’ home countries have also been known to exploit workers.

Texas-based Equal Justice Center attorney Christopher Willett has represented landscaping workers in wage theft cases and has seen how recruiters in Mexico and Central America charge migrants for the opportunity to work abroad.

“The workers will have to pay some sort of recruitment cost or fee to the local recruiter to be eligible for the job, and so by the time they arrive in the United States, they’re already arriving with a debt they need to work off and pay off,” Willett said.

Despite its challenges, the H-2B seasonal worker program is popular for both workers and employers.

Landscaping worker Alvarez Miranda said even with the strain on family life — and instances he’s heard of in which people are defrauded by fake recruiters — he supports the seasonal worker program.

“We’re happy with the opportunity,” he said. “To be here legally is wonderful because I go wherever I want. I’m not afraid of the police, I’m actually relaxed as if I’m a resident,” he said, acknowledging that many who come to work in the U.S. are pushed into illegal pathways because they lack access to visas.

Former seasonal landscaping worker Jose Filiberto Garcia Avila also recommends the program.

“I hope the government continues offering the opportunity to bring people here. I think that it would be the best [option], so people don’t risk crossing the border in a dangerous way,” Garcia Avila said in Spanish.

Back in Mexico, Garcia Avila held low-paying jobs on chicken farms and in construction. After coming to the U.S. on a seasonal visa, he was able to become a permanent resident and now lives in Houston year-round with a career in landscaping.

He credits the seasonal worker program for the opportunity and hopes Americans recognize the hard work immigrants like him put into making cities like Houston more beautiful.

“The vast majority of the people who come on this program,” he said, “we come to work. We come to get ahead like everyone else, and we want to give it our all.”

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