After his inauguration, President Donald Trump hastily implemented stringent immigration policy that immediately caused mass confusion, blocking immigrants with green cards and visas from entering the country and deepening a sense of uncertainty for many foreigners looking to the U.S. for work.
In Newport and other coastal Rhode Island communities, those workers have often relied on H2-B visas, granted for nonagricultural temporary jobs in the U.S. These workers have for years toiled in hotels and restaurants during the busy summer months.
Though use of the visa has not been as widespread locally in recent years as the region struggled with the aftermath of the Great Recession, it is still used, including by Newport Harbor Corp. Kristin Fahey, director of human resources, said the company has relied on H2-B visa holders from Jamaica for the past 17 years and has already applied for 22 H2-B visas for this summer.
"There are certain jobs and skill sets we've found successfully by using this program … your line-level employees, unskilled laborers," she said, including cooks and bussers.
Fahey said NHC hires 500 seasonal workers – mostly local college students. Visa holders make up a small number of employees, yet their roles are so important the company purchased three houses specifically to quarter H2-B visa holders, she said: "We decided years ago it was worth the investment."
Jamaica is not on the list of countries Trump has sought to temporarily restrict immigrant travel and visa applications from, so NHC is hopeful a new iteration of the travel ban will not discourage foreign workers they've come to rely on.
Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the R.I. Hospitality Association, does not ask members about visa use, but characterized the H2-B visa program as "very expensive, and the paperwork is all-consuming."
She declined to comment on the potential impact of Trump's evolving immigration policy because, she said, Newport hotels don't start to hire until May.
Erin Donovan-Boyle, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, does not expect a shortage of foreign visa workers this summer but said she is concerned about 2018.
If stricter visa policies come, "a lot of our industry members will be impacted and their hiring practices will have to adjust," she said, suggesting they'll have to look to locals to fill more slots.
Robert Burnetti, The Hotel Viking's general manager, said the company has already been doing that for several years. He said the hotel no longer employs H2-B visa holders because increased year-round business demands employees live locally. Unlike NHC, Burnetti noted the expense of housing H2-B visa holders as one of the program's prohibitive aspects. •