It took the lobbying efforts of Congressman Bill Keating, countless phone calls and emails, and a midnight run from Oak Bluffs to Falmouth, but this past weekend Donovan Clarke, the convivial Nancy’s Restaurant bartender who’s been a fixture there since 2001, finally made it back to Martha’s Vineyard after months of visa purgatory.
“I feel like I’m right back where I belong,” the soft-spoken and sturdily built Mr. Clarke told The Times as he set up his bar late Monday morning. “It’s a great feeling.”
“His first day back it rained all day, but there was a long line for Donovan pretty much the whole time,” Nancy’s co-owner Doug Abdelnour said. “The people who stepped in for him did a really great job. You didn’t get the full effect of his absence until he came back. The public response has been amazing. For us, it’s like getting a family member back.”
Mr. Clarke is Nancy’s longest tenured employee. From October through May, he works at Alfred’s Ocean Palace in Negril, Jamaica, where Mr. Abdelnour first spotted him in 2000. His visa problems didn’t arise until after he’d informed his employers at Alfred’s that he was returning to the Vineyard for another summer at Nancy’s, and they’d already hired his replacement. Since May, Mr. Clarke has picked up only occasional shifts, making it difficult to support his family and extended family, which he says totals eight people.
“It’s been hard, it set me back, bigtime,” he said. “It’s been chaos. I didn’t even know if I was coming back until the beginning of this month.”
Mr. Clarke said the support he’s received from Islanders during the delay, particularly in posts on the Facebook page “Islanders Talk,” boosted his morale. “It was overwhelming. I really appreciate their concern,” he said. “It’s bittersweet when you leave your family, but this job is important to all of us.”
To his relief, Mr. Clarke said there was no problem with immigration at Logan Airport. Because he and five other H-2B workers from Jamaica arrived well after the last bus to the last ferry, Mr. Abdelnour hired a car to take them to Falmouth. Around midnight on Friday, he crossed Vineyard Sound in his own boat and picked them up. He said the added effort and expense, which includes $1,600 per person to expedite a visa that costs them $1,000, is well worth it.
“Fresh legs right now are much more valuable than you think,” he said. “We’ve all been run ragged.”
Mr. Clarke’s H-2B visa, usually good for six months, will only be good until the end of September.
“Nothing I can do about that,” he said, pouring a large bucket of ice. “I’m just glad to be back.”
Political climate change
Until this year, Mr. Clarke would have been given a “returning worker” exemption on his H-2B visa, and would have been back at his post on Memorial Day. But this year, the “returning worker” provision was eliminated, the result of a vote along partisan lines in Congress. In the past 11 years, Congress had raised the cap on H-2B visas four times. But that all changed under the Trump administration. Congressman Keating, an outspoken critic of the changes in visa protocol under President Trump, spent the past seven months working both sides of the aisle to increase the number of H-2B visas available this summer. With a sharply dwindling American worker pool, Cape and Islands seasonal businesses have become increasingly reliant on H-2B workers to make ends meet. According to the Department of Labor, there were 84,627 H-2B visas issued in 2016. Without the returning-worker exemption, almost 19,000 jobs would have gone unfilled in seasonal U.S. businesses.
At a public hearing in June, Rep. Keating went head-to-head with then-Director of Homeland Security John Kelly over H-2B visas, asking why more progress hadn’t been made in increasing worker volume. He pointed out that Congress had recently empowered Mr. Kelly’s office to boost the number of H-2B visa workers from 66,000 up to 129,000.
“There’s a huge bipartisan support for this, and may I respectfully say there’s no U.S. jobs lost in this respect,” he said, according to a press release. “These are jobs that frankly can’t be filled. There’s no security interest. These are returning workers; some of them have been coming back and forth for 20 years.”
On July 19, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor published a final rule increasing the cap on H-2B nonimmigrant visas by up to 15,000 through the end of fiscal year (FY) 2017. The visas are available only to American businesses which can attest that they will likely suffer irreparable harm without the ability to employ all the H-2B workers requested in their petition. They expire at the end of the day on Sept. 30.
“This weekend I’ll lose 10 percent of my staff when the college students leave,” Mr. Abdelnour said. “We’ve had way more J-1 workers this year than before, but they won’t stay through the season either. That’s why H-2B visas are so critical. We’re really glad these guys are back.”