Cape Cod’s tourism industry shudders at a cap on worker visas

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Every summer, Chuck Rigg, owner of The Commons, in Provincetown, counts on an influx of Jamaican workers to staff the 19th-century hotel and bistro he operates with partner Carl Draper. But a surprise decision by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to limit the number of foreign workers admitted to the US under the H-2B visa program is likely to catch inn owners like him short-handed. In March, the bureau, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now part of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that it was enforcing a previously ignored quota of 66,000 temporary workers, and that applications received after March 9 were being returned.

“We’re very concerned,” says Rigg. “We’ve applied to bring in 10 workers and haven’t heard anything. If we can’t get the help we need, it’s definitely going to affect our business.”

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy K. Northcross has been compiling a list of local restaurants, inns, and retail outlets that are likely to be affected by the visa cap. “I’ve heard from more than 70 businesses, and that number is growing each day,” says Northcross. On the outer cape, the shortage of workers is likely to be particularly intense, she notes. “It used to be that young people who lived here took these jobs,” says Northcross, who once worked as a chambermaid in a West Dennis inn herself. “But demographic change is against us, and on parts of the Cape where the population is small to begin with there are nowhere near enough people to fill these temporary jobs.”

Island life could be affected as well. The Nantucket Regional Transit Authority relies on seasonal employees from Eastern Europe to drive buses each summer but can’t get them because of the cap. “Some of our larger employers are being hurt by this,” says Matt Fee, a Nantucket selectman and owner of the Something Natural eatery.

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While no official reason has been given for the policy change–and immigration officials are not talking–Fee and others suggest that the decision to limit visas for foreign workers is fueled by politics, reflecting mounting concerns about American jobs that are moving overseas. “People have to understand that these temporary workers are not taking jobs away from Americans,” says Fee, noting that all of the jobs filled by H-2B visa holders must first be advertised locally. “The visa program is not a source of cheap labor, and these are not sweatshop jobs.”

For now, employers on the Cape and the islands are waiting for word on the status of their visa applications. They caution that the visa cap, far from just an abstract political issue, will be felt directly by consumers and residents this summer. Says Paul Souza, owner of Bayberry Gardens in Truro, “Everybody will find out what’s going on when we don’t have enough help to service the accounts.”

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer in Arlington.