October 5, 2017 at 9:48 AM
DENVER — The first day on the job for the 39 new hires at Jesus "Chuy" Medrano's landscaping firm started as soon as they stumbled off the bus in the early morning, groggy and stiff from the 13-hour trip from the Mexican border.
"Ready to work?" Medrano joked in Spanish — before the men had a chance to use the bathroom or eat breakfast. The 63-year-old grandfather, wearing a cowboy hat, stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and grinned.
Medrano, founder and owner of CoCal Landscape, had spent more than $32,000 recruiting and securing visas for the Mexican migrants after scrambling to find Americans willing to do backbreaking work under the Colorado sun.
With this crew's arrival, he thought, the season might be salvaged after all.
Medrano's extraordinary recruitment effort — which included three days in Ciudad Juarez while the U.S. Consulate processed the work visas — encapsulates the complex relationship between American employers and temporary foreign workers.
In landscaping, tourism, seafood processing and other seasonal industries, employers are desperate to find Americans who will stay on the job for the pay they are able to offer — $14 an hour is the starting salary at Medrano's firm.
Until now, those industries have leaned heavily on a visa program for seasonal workers, called H-2B visas.
But Congress has reduced the number of available visas by nearly 30 percent from 2016, and President Trump's promise to limit legal as well as illegal immigration and protect American workers has Medrano worried. For the men stepping off the bus — some of whom have worked on his crew for years — this could be the last season.
Opponents of the H-2B visa program say the foreign workers steal American jobs and drive down wages.
Medrano, too, says he would prefer to hire locally. Importing temporary labor exposes his company to too much uncertainty every year.
But there are simply not enough Americans who want the type of jobs he offers, with regular work only between April and October, especially in a state with one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates.
Over the past 25 years, Medrano has increasingly relied on the guest worker program to grow his landscaping business — until this year, when CoCal was denied visas for the 160 Mexican laborers it normally gets. Congress did not renew a 2016 rule that exempted "returning" workers from the annual H-2B cap, effectively cutting available visas from 85,000 to 66,000.
When the Trump administration unexpectedly released 15,000 additional visas for migrant workers in July, Medrano pounced, even though the landscaping season was nearly over.
He welcomed his best workers back to CoCal just before Labor Day. He recognized himself in these men, whose stories and economic fates are intertwined with his.
The men, 22 to 66 years old, had the same motivation to leave their families as he did when he first came to this country from Chihuahua 44 years ago: work.
Antonio de Jesus Gomez ordinarily makes a living shimmying up 40-foot trees, trying to avoid snakes as he picks avocados in his home state of Michoacan.
His fellow migrants, from all over Mexico, are farmers, house painters, taco vendors. They earn, on average, the equivalent of $100 a week. That's when the work is steady, which it often isn't.
As landscapers now, the workers will make five times as much as they would in Mexico — even after taxes.
So when supervisors in fluorescent orange safety vests circled the newly arrived crew, Gomez jumped at the chance to start immediately. He'd slept six hours on the bus and eaten a breakfast of yogurt and muffins bought at a gas station rest stop in Las Cruces, N.M.
"It's what I came for," said the 28-year-old, whose wife is five months pregnant with their second child. "To give something better to my family."
Gomez changed into his CoCal uniform — a long-sleeved gray polo shirt and black baseball cap — and hopped into a truck with a supervisor.
They drove to a municipal water treatment plant, where Gomez was reunited with his father, a foreman who had started at CoCal as an H-2B worker but is now a legal U.S. resident on the company's permanent staff. After a quick hello, Gomez poured gas into a weed-whacker and got to work trimming the lawn around two storage ponds of reclaimed wastewater.
Medrano was 18 the first time he crossed into the United States, from the Mexican border town of Puerto Palomas into Columbus, N.M. He picked the seeds out of two truckloads of red chiles at a ranch for $2,000, then caught a bus to Denver, where an acquaintance connected him with a job at a cemetery. Immigration authorities sent him back to Mexico, but he returned to Denver within days, eventually becoming a landscaper. It was 1973.
Twenty years later, Medrano started CoCal. By then, he had married, become a U.S. citizen and was a father of three.
In CoCal's early years, Medrano said, he gave work to undocumented immigrants, just as work had once been offered to him. But he later decided that it was not worth risking his business by breaking the law. That's when he turned to the H-2B visa program, initially recruiting family and friends in Mexico.
Medrano hired his first crew of nine migrant workers in 1997. As his company grew, the number of H-2B workers expanded to 160, accounting for 40 percent of CoCal's total employees the past few years.
"Those guys, without pushing them, do the work of 1½ people already here," he said. "But it started bothering me that I was relying so much on them. I knew one day we weren't going to get them. And that was this year."
Medrano said he went to great lengths this summer to recruit Americans to mow lawns, plant trees and fix sprinklers. He put up a digital billboard over the highway that flashed "We're hiring!" in Spanish and English. He interviewed anyone who walked in.
"We hope they're breathing and they have a pulse, and we hire them," he said.
He raised the hourly wage for unskilled laborers to $13.95 — 50 percent more than Colorado's minimum wage. He stopped firing workers for absenteeism, including a foreman who went AWOL during a two-week drinking binge.
He hired more women, allowing mothers to work just the hours their children are in school, as well as high school and college students on summer break.
And still, he was short-staffed. Some showed up to orientation only to say, "I'm not going to do that for $14 an hour," Medrano recounted. New hires unaccustomed to work boots complained of sore, blistered feet. Some walked off the job after three days.
Of the 222 workers hired since February, only 73 remained.
Economists say businesses would have better luck attracting American workers if they offered competitive wages. But Medrano said he pays as much as his customers could support, with entry-level wages hovering at the industry's state average. Any higher, he said, "I would drive myself out of the market."
Quality control dropped this summer because supervisors had to stop overseeing and pitch in. Customers complained of dry spots on lawns where the sprinkler system was not reaching. They grew angry over how long it took the smaller crews to complete each job. Competitors began to poach. And CoCal lost $1.7 million in contracts.
Then the Trump administration, after heavy lobbying from industry, made more visas available.
CoCal had to submit paperwork showing that the company would suffer permanent "irreparable harm" without hiring migrants. The company's request was approved within two weeks, and Medrano was on his way to Mexico to meet the workers.
"It's like a little Band-Aid," Medrano said.
Ramiro Espinoza, a 39-year-old father of three, jumped when CoCal came calling, even though it required a 25-hour bus journey from his home near Mexico City to Ciudad Juarez, where he would spend two days being fingerprinted and interviewed at the U.S. Consulate — with no assurance he would clear all the hurdles for a work visa.
"The uncertainty weighs heavily," he said when he reached Ciudad Juarez. "And I think it also weighs heavily for the company not to be sure whether we are going to be able to come or not."
Espinoza had been a taxi driver until April, when his cab was stolen. He drove school buses until July, when school ended and he got a maintenance job. But he can't make ends meet on $10 a day.
He came with his 66-year-old father, Adalberto Espinoza, whose passport is filled with guest worker visas from previous stints at Colorado landscaping companies and a Maine meatpacking plant. This would be their fourth season with CoCal.
On their first day in Ciudad Juarez, the Espinozas gathered with other workers in a hotel's fountain courtyard, as if assembling for a reunion. All had worked for CoCal before and felt a mixture of luck at being selected, guilt that former colleagues were not and sadness at the prospect of missing their children's first days of school.
"You are happy when you get the call, but as it nears when you have to leave, you don't want the day to arrive," Ramiro Espinoza said.
That night, Espinoza discovered a letter that his 9-year-old daughter, Natalia, had tucked into his suitcase.
On a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook, she had written in Spanish, in rounded print: "I wish that poverty would not fall upon us so much. I'm not saying this because I want to be rich, but it's that I don't want you to go to the U.S. and be far from me and the family."
Espinoza walked out to the patio and wept.
"They are an engine," he said of his wife and daughters. "Behind every one of us, there are little ones who depend on us, emotionally as well as economically. We live half our lives over there and half our lives over here."
The sun was just starting to rise over the trailer parked at one of CoCal's equipment yards, where Gomez, the avocado-picker from Michoacan, and his father are living rent-free in exchange for keeping watch on evenings and weekends.
A Denver Broncos blanket draped across the window doubled as a curtain. An altar to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe dominated the main room.
In the tiny kitchen, next to a bank of surveillance monitors, Gomez heated tortillas on a propane grill and used his free hand to call his 5-year-old daughter, Sophia.
His father wrapped the chicken burritos they were packing for lunch.
"A lot of people ask me why we want Mexican people to come here on work visas," said Jesus Gomez, the CoCal foreman who has lived in Denver since 2008. "A great problem we have with many people here — you train them, and then they don't come back if the work is rough, and you have to start over with others."
Outside, supervisors in trucks started to pull into the gravel yard. It was the first full day of work for the migrants.
Medrano said he hoped that the Mexican workers would help CoCal end the season strong and make customers happy so that the company could renew as many contracts as possible.
But the migrants will be gone at the end of October, and he knew there are no guarantees they will be back.
"I got to find a way to hire more people from here," Medrano said. "I don't want to depend on H-2Bs. I don't want to depend on a maybe."
For the company to survive without guest worker visas, Medrano said he would need more Americans to see CoCal as a long-term career.
But it's hard to get workers to invest in a company that does not promise year-round employment. Medrano will lay off most of his local staff at the end of the season, keeping only a third through the winter to plow and shovel snow.
He said he would offer one of his new stars, a Californian who recently moved to Denver, a raise, a winter job and a fast track to management.
And he was optimistic that other local hires would stick it out and return next year: the former waitress with three kids who instantly took to pruning and pulling weeds. The 65-year-old who took on a second job at CoCal to supplement his salary at Bass Pro Shop.
The reality though is that few Americans last — illustrated that very afternoon when a familiar scene played out at CoCal headquarters.
Juan Gonzalez, a 22-year-old with a community-college education, came to say goodbye. After two months on the job, he couldn't take it anymore.
Every night, he returned home exhausted and red. His feet bruised and blistered in his boots. He would shower and collapse on his bed, falling asleep without eating.
His grandfather, who had been a landscaper, suggested a change.
"He saw me drained and said, 'This job is for tough men. You got a diploma. You could get out there and get a better job, an easier job,' " Gonzalez said as he walked out the door, his final paycheck in hand. "I was kind of embarrassed, but he was right."
The young man would be the 137th American this season to quit.
Correction: The story incorrectly stated that Medrano crossed the Rio Grande the first time he entered the United States. He traversed the river on a subsequent crossing.