As American politicians and business owners wrangle over the limits on the number of H-2B visas for unskilled, nonagricultural workers, Tlapacoyan (pronounced tla-pa-COY-an), with about 60,000 residents in the town and surrounding area, offers a glimpse of how the impasse has stung in Mexico. Last year, Mexicans received more than 70 percent of the approximately 84,000 H-2B visas issued by the United States to migrant workers worldwide.
The lack of visas has denied hundreds of families in the city an annual income that saves them from living hand-to-mouth and deepened the problems of a town struggling, like much of the state, with high crime rates. Of an estimated 4,600 to 6,000 residents who normally work the carnival season according to city officials and recruiters, about a third have been left behind.
Instead, they are selling tacos and driving taxis, or working for just over $1 an hour in the tangerine and banana fields that surround the town. Some use Google Translate and WhatsApp to check their visa status with their former American employers.
Mr. Trujillo is working as a driver for a construction crew, earning about $85 a week, less than a quarter of his carnival salary.
He used savings from his time in the United States to buy a plot of land and build a one-bedroom house, even splurging on a $350 stroller for his son, now 22 months old. This year, however, “there will be no proper Christmas, no presents, no turkey,” Mr. Trujillo said. He abandoned plans to take his son to a safari park in nearby Puebla state for his birthday. “I can barely make it day to day.”
Martín Peña, 34, who has spent two seasons with an Ohio-based amusement company but has not received a visa this year, said he had put off plans to buy a couch and a washing machine for his mother.
From the United States, Mr. Peña sent home as much as $300 a week from his take-home pay of about $345, eating fried chicken or cooking eggs with chili and tomato to save money. He tore down the wooden shack where he lives with his parents on the edge of Tlapacoyan and built cinder block walls. He also paid for his father’s treatment for typhoid.
As wrenching as it was to work far from his family, he said, managing without extra income was worse. “There is this anxiety that doesn’t go away,” he said.
The visa problems began in March when the summer allotment of H-2Bs ran out, leaving some American businesses scrambling for people to clean hotel rooms, run Ferris wheels and fish for shrimp. Demand for visas was high, said recruiters and experts, and Congress did not renew a provision that had excluded returning H-2B workers from counting against the total quota of 66,000 visas, which is split evenly between summer and winter.
Lawmakers in May then granted the government authority to more or less double the cap on this year’s quota to save “American business from irreparable harm,” and the White House on July 17 authorized an increase of 15,000 visas, bringing the total number available close to the number issued last year.
But business owners who have been waiting to bring seasonal workers said the requirements to apply for visas were onerous and that the extra visas were too few, too late.
Deborah Murray, one of the owners of Murray Brothers, a carnival company based in Cincinnati, said she had scaled back this year because she could not muster 30 reliable workers. She applied months ago for 12 visas for Mexican workers; she received four last week.
“You can never really recover,” said Ms. Murray, who spoke by telephone from a Cincinnati church festival where she said she was running five rides instead of the usual 10. “I’ve been working since April and I’m a week from August,” she said. “The season is gone.”
Critics of the current H-2B system said statistics did not support claims that American labor was scarce in sectors that use a lot of the visas, like landscaping, and that employers could fill the jobs with American workers if they paid more or recruited from outside their area.
The visa program also ties foreign workers to one employer, making them susceptible to exploitation, according to Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Some recruiters demand payment, a practice banned in the United States, which saddles workers with debt and may make them more acquiescent.
Rather than having employers determine how many foreign workers they need, the government could set up an independent body to identify labor shortages and allocate visas, Mr. Costa said.
“It’s only fair to set the system in a way that they are not exploited,” he said, referring to migrant workers. “Otherwise employers will try to keep wages down.”
Most carnival workers in Tlapacoyan are hired through a pipeline run by James Judkins, a former circus performer and president of the JKJ Workforce agency, based in Harlingen, Tex., and his representative in Mexico, Victor Apolinar Barrios.
Residents recruited at the office of Mr. Apolinar — who is currently mayor of Tlapacoyan — said they believed he had made a fortune charging workers fees to secure jobs. None would agree to be quoted, saying they were afraid of spoiling their chances of getting work in the future.
Separately, labor advocates won tens of thousands of dollars in 2015 for workers after filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against a union linked to Mr. Judkins, whose sister, Deborah Judkins, was its administrator. The complaint argued that the union, the Association of Mobile Entertainment Workers, was a sham organization that undermined workers by agreeing to weekly rather than hourly rates.
Arthur N. Read, general counsel of Friends of Farmworkers based in Philadelphia, who filed the complaint, said the settlement covered fees paid by workers to the union; a second settlement to cover backpay to workers is pending and could be far larger, he said.
Mr. Apolinar did not respond to several calls seeking comment, and aides said he was absent when journalists visited the mayor’s office, despite indications that he was present. Mr. Judkins said that his organization was very careful to follow the law and make sure no worker was charged illegal fees.
Despite accusations of underhanded or illegal practices by employers, several carnival workers who were waiting for visas this month said they enjoyed the carnival circuit.
Yes, there were days that stretched into the wee hours, patrons who vomited on the Zipper (a ride that involves being spun upside down in cages) and the occasional racist outburst from a parent whose child was not tall enough to board a ride. But there was also the chance to learn English, pick up some trendy, hand-me-down sneakers and leave the violence of Mexico behind.
Eduardo Torres, 25, who has worked two seasons for Murray Brothers in fairs across Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, said he had never imagined traveling by airplane or visiting big cities. He marveled at what he called the “cool stuff” everywhere and picked up all sorts of used clothing. “It was a dream come true,” he said.
For Mr. Trujillo, whose favorite job was serving lemonade and hamburgers and learning English in the process — “like a little school” — the carnival became a window onto a more promising existence.
In the United States, said Mr. Trujillo, “if you dream about 15 things, you can buy five.”
In Tlapacoyan, he said, you dream, too. But when you open your eyes, of the things you dreamed about, “not one of them is there.”
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