Work-visa shortage ‘maddening’ for High Country employers

David O. Williams
Special to the Daily
Vail Valley landscape and construction business owners who are desperate for labor say they can no longer rely on being able to get workers on H-2B temporary work visas because of hard-line immigration policies.
Photo special to the Daily | Getty Images

VAIL — Against the backdrop of tumultuous immigration news, reform advocates in Colorado’s High Country want people to focus on the economic contributions of immigrants in the midst of a worsening work-visa and labor-shortage crisis and as June’s Immigrant Heritage Month comes to a close.

“Oftentimes people think about our broken immigration system solely through the lens of people who are here undocumented but forget that our system is actually really complex and (includes) special work visas that people for a really long time have been able to tap into to get the kind of labor they need, whether that’s in construction and landscaping or even farms across the state of Colorado,” said Marissa Molina, Colorado state immigration manager for

Landscaping and construction companies up and down the Vail Valley have been struggling all spring and so far this summer to find enough workers in Eagle County, where the unemployment rate is below 2% and the once-solid H-2B temporary work visa for unskilled, nonagricultural workers has become an unreliable crapshoot.

Glen Ellison of Ceres Landcare and Ceres+ Landscape Architecture in Eagle said for 18 years he went to great expense and effort to sponsor 35 H-2B workers — many from one town in Mexico. That’s because he couldn’t find U.S. citizens willing and able to do the hard work in often tough conditions to create and maintain the high-end landscaping in Beaver Creek and Cordillera.

The last two years of the Trump administration, the program has failed to produce a single worker for Ellison, and it also came up empty during the Great Recession one year under the Obama administration.

“As difficult as it was to accept back then, it was probably for a good reason. But today, when there’s an uptick in the economy and last year we didn’t get a single employee back or this year … it’s maddening,” Ellison said. “They’re 35 crafty, dedicated, loyal, hardworking (men), like family members.”

Gary Woodworth, president and CEO of the Gallegos Corporation masonry and construction company in Wolcott, has been using H-2B visas for two decades. In recent years, the breakdown of the work visa system has prompted him to travel to Washington to lobby for the only part of the system he says was working. Ellison joined him on a recent trip.

“It’s important to us to be able to increase our numbers with that legal workforce that is vetted when they come here,” Woodworth said at a Vail Symposium event on immigration and work visas in Edwards last spring.

“By the time they come to our place to work, they’ve been through all of the counselor appointments, they’ve been verified. They don’t have any criminal backgrounds or they would not be here. They’re here for one reason and that’s to work, send money home and go home at the end of the year,” Woodworth added.

Workers wanted

Both Ellison and Woodworth say they’ve gone to great lengths to recruit American citizens for their unfilled jobs but simply can’t get the workers — even at relatively high pay rates with benefits. Woodworth agrees that the work visa system has become entangled in the larger immigration debate.

“Immigration reform beyond that is a large issue that I think we all would like to see corrected, updated in some form so that we can employ more of the local people that we know are in and amongst us that we helped to raise as kids and support and educate and give them an opportunity in our country,” Woodworth said.

‘Their work is so invisible’

Molina, who was brought to Glenwood Springs from Mexico at the age of 9, is now a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or DACA. A so-called “Dreamer,” Molina feels her parents and so many like them haven’t received the recognition they deserve as roofers and housekeepers often working in the shadows without benefits and retirement plans.

“While they’re contributing in really great numbers to our economy and are doing really critical work to keep these ski towns open and running, their work is so invisible,” said Molina, the first DACA recipient to serve on a Colorado state board, with Metropolitan State University of Denver.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will decide the fate of nearly 800,000 Dreamers nationwide after the Trump administration tried to end the Obama administration program and states challenged that move. The court will hear the case in October and likely rule next year. There are 17,000 DACA recipients in Colorado, including many right here in Eagle County.

“For the more than 17,000 DACA recipients in Colorado, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments on the termination of this vital program is deeply disappointing and will force Dreamers to continue to live their lives in fear and uncertainty,” Molina said, urging people to renew and go to for more information and resources.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House earlier this month passed the DREAM Act to permanently protect DACA recipients, with Vail Valley Rep. Joe Neguse testifying for the bill as the son of immigrants from Africa. The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to even consider it.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court at least temporarily ended Trump administration efforts to put a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, but some analysts say just the attempt likely already has had a chilling effect on the true count that determines federal funding for a wide variety of programs and congressional redistricting that could impact Eagle County in 2022.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. House passed a Senate version of a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package for the crisis on the border, with progressive Democrats angered the bill doesn’t do enough to check the Trump administration’s child custody and family separation policies after a story last weekend in The New York Times revealed inhumane conditions in Clint, Texas.

Images of a young father and his toddler daughter drowned in the Rio Grande earlier in the week provided graphic proof of the desperation on the border as Central American refugees seek work and a better way of life in the United States.

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