WASHINGTON — Seafood processors, sugar cane millers and landscapers in Louisiana are worried there won't be enough visas available for the foreign seasonal laborers they need in the coming months.

The seafood and sugar industries have long relied on foreign guest workers to staff plants, but federal limits on H-2B visas for temporary immigrant laborers and a tightening U.S. job market have left many employers uncertain if they’ll have enough workers to shuck oysters, peel shrimp, shred sugar cane and even mow lawns.

Congress last year let lapse an exemption that let returning workers claim visas, triggering a fight for 66,000 available documents. The Trump administration provided limited relief, releasing an extra 15,000 H-2B visas beyond the cap each of the past two years, though some in Congress has urged it to release more.

Louisiana employers who rely on the visas to bring in workers, many if not most from Latin America, say local workers aren’t eager for the positions, which usually pay above minimum wage but don’t offer steady year-round work. Hiring local has become even tougher as the economy heats up and unemployment drops to the lowest levels since 2000.

Dextor Guidry, the president of Riceland Crawfish in Eunice, said he’s faced annual questions about whether he’d receive enough H-2B visas to process the crawfish harvest and chop alligator meat.

Before applying for foreign guest-worker visas, businesses must prove they’ve made efforts to hire local workers. The U.S. Department of Labor only accepts applications within 90 days of the job’s start date, meaning visa decisions often occur right before the harvest.

About five years ago, Guidry said, he did not receive any visas approved at all, forcing him to cancel contracts and cut back his operations. That same fate, Guidry said, hit other crawfish processors this year.

“It’s impossible to do a business plan,” Guidry said. “These chain stores we’re working with, if they’re going to make room on their shelves, they want a commitment. It’s hard for you to make a commitment and not renege on it with your labor in question.”

Guidry said he normally applies for visas for roughly 100 workers, most of them from Mexico’s Gulf coast, and prefers to bring back the same employees for three-month stints year after year.

Jeff LeJeune said his Baton Rouge landscaping company, Green Up Lawn Care, received only half the 30 H-2B visas he applied for. He has had to cancel contracts, cut back on purchases of new equipment and delay work for some clients (including for The Advocate’s parent company).

“I guarantee that if I could get the labor I need, I could double the size of my company,” LeJeune said. “It’s not just me, it’s everybody. The work is there.”

Louisiana’s 11 sugarcane mills also depend heavily on foreign seasonal workers to process the state’s cane crop into marketable sugar, said Jim Simon, the general manager of the Louisiana-based American Sugar Cane League, which represents the industry.

Tight competition from other industries for H-2B visas means most sugarcane mills can’t find enough workers to begin their roughly 100-day milling season until October, Simon said, delaying the harvest.

Simon said sugar cane generally needs to be milled within hours of being harvested, meaning farmers have to leave their crops in the field until the mills are free. Delays in opening the mills at the beginning of the harvest means some farmers aren’t able to harvest their cane until January, risking crop-damaging freezes.

“It’s a very real issue for us,” said Simon. “Most every year, we run into some real trouble.”

Julia, an H-2B worker at an oyster processor in Louisiana, said she’s come to the state from her native Mexico for each of the past five years for nine-month stints to earn money to support her two daughters and send them to school, though the work also means she spends most of the year away from her family.

Julia, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of potential retaliation, said she paid a recruiter in Mexico $1,250 to get matched with a potential employer in the U.S., a practice that’s now illegal. She said working conditions for migrants can be tough, with some working fewer hours for less pay than promised, but few complain for fear an employer will "blacklist" them.

Still, it's worth it, Julia said. Higher pay provides a brighter future for her children. Her legal status under H-2B visa also allows her to return home to see her family each year — something undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S. rarely do because of the risks involved in sneaking back into the country.

The H-2B visa program has come under attack from critics on both the left and the right, who've alleged workplace exploitation or argued guest workers hurt job prospects for Americans.

Labor rights organizations have pointed to the power employers hold over migrant workers — whose visas forbid them from switching jobs during their stint in the country — and alleged that some companies have exploited or abused workers.

Anti-immigration advocates pushing for lower levels of immigration, meanwhile, claim H-2B workers and other foreign laborers take jobs that could be filled by Americans and push down wages, arguing that employers could attract local workers with better recruiting efforts or higher pay.

Louisiana employers disputed those claims in interviews with The Advocate. Hiring foreign guest workers carries hefty legal costs, application fees and transportation expenses, they noted, and the Department of Labor sets base wages well above the state’s minimum wage.

Guidry, the crawfish and alligator processor, said he spends about $40,000 each year securing the visas and that workers make at least $12 an hour, with many earning more based on production.

Local workers tend to pass up the jobs in favor of steady year-round work, Guidry said. Other applicants interested in the seasonal jobs end up turning it down because the three months of work might end up costing federal benefits like unemployment, disability or housing assistance, Guidry said.

Several Louisiana employers who rely on H-2B workers said they’d like to see Congress reinstate the program’s “returning worker exemption,” which renewed work permits for returning seasonal laborers without counting them against the 66,000-visa cap. 

Congress did give the Trump administration significant leeway to expand the cap by up to 69,000 more visas if needed, but federal officials released less than a quarter of those. Rep. Garett Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said the Trump administration can and should allow more temporary guest workers if firms prove they can't find enough Americans to fill seasonal positions.

"The law we passed actually does provide the flexibility. It just hasn't been properly exercised in this case," Graves said. "I think there's bipartisan recognition that there are jobs in America right now in excess of the capability of Americans to fill them."

Graves and Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, said some benefits programs could be altered so they don't discourage Americans from taking seasonal jobs.

“One of the reasons I support work requirements for SNAP (food stamp) recipients is because no matter who I talk to — foresters, sweet potato farmers, crawfish processors, you name it — they can’t get Americans to go to work,” Abraham said in a statement. “We have a labor force here should be filling these jobs, but right now our (agricultural) producers need these seasonal guest workers to keep their commodities from literally dying in the fields. That would be bad for everyone.”

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.