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Ralph Egües gathered eight Hispanic landscape contractors above a Fairfax, Va., garden center Wednesday night to deliver a simple message: It is time to get political.
Egües, a Cuban-American business consultant from Miami, established the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance last month based on the premise that being Hispanic has become a hot political commodity in Washington.
“Both parties want to get their arms around what Hispanic issues actually are,” he told the men. “If we don’t brand our issues as Hispanic issues, which they are, we’re missing an opportunity.”
Egües, who serves on the board of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and the group’s founding members have stumbled on a rare moment where being in the minority is a political advantage. Federal agency officials have opened their doors for last-minute meetings, and Congressional offices are calling Egües’ cell phone to set up appointments with Members he has never even asked to meet.
“I have never in my experience known Congressional staff to call us saying, ‘We want to talk,’” Egües said. “That’s how hot this is.”
The trade group, which represents the interests of Hispanic-run landscaping companies, is unusual in that it’s united by the ethnicity of its members. NHLA estimates that Hispanics make up more than two-thirds of industry workers and are consequently affected disproportionately by policy changes that affect the industry.
Although many Hispanic advocacy groups tend to focus on immigration issues and find Democrats to be their most responsive audience, NHLA has a conservative, pro-business, small-government bent.
The group is fighting some new federal regulations proposed by the Labor Department, arguing they could force hundreds of landscaping businesses to dramatically downsize, to the detriment of the 500,000 Hispanic-Americans working at all levels of the landscaping industry.
Starting next year, seasonal employers that rely on temporary foreign labor to supplement their workforce through the H-2B visa program will be required to increase the wages of those guest workers to American market levels. For entry-level landscaping jobs, that will mean a raise of about $3.60 per hour, approximately 50 percent of the average salary, according to the Labor Department.
The administration proposed further changes to the H-2B program in March that are also intended to make landscaping jobs more accessible to unemployed Americans. For example, firms participating in the H-2B program would be required to pay workers’ visa fees and to advertise all new openings to former American employees, even those who were fired, before turning to foreigners.
Landscape company managers say the changes would increase their operating costs, force them to hire sub-par laborers and ultimately box them out of the H-2B program altogether.
Josh Denison, the vice president of Denison Landscaping Inc. in Fort Washington, Md., brings about 160 seasonal workers to the United States on H-2B visas annually, and they make up about one-third of his employees.
Dropping out of the program would force him to lay off the upper-level American workers who would have managed the foreign employees, costing him nearly $6 million in annual revenue, he said after the NHLA recruitment meeting.
“I’d let go 35 or 40 people without even blinking an eye,” he said. “And these guys are like family.”
The organization is also working to overturn an EPA recommendation that landscape designers limit lawn cover to 40 percent of any single property as part of a campaign to save water.
The lawn cover and visa issues put NHLA at odds with environmental groups and labor unions like the AFL-CIO, which has aggressively lobbied for the changes to the visa rules.
“The fact that it’s another employer group aligned with the Chamber of Commerce is more significant than that they happen to be Hispanic,” said Ana Avendano, who directs immigration work for the AFL-CIO. “We haven’t seen an immigrant worker protection regulation for years, and it’s bringing out all these groups that have had the upper hand for so long.”
The organization could very well give pro-business groups a new channel to power and build support in what has traditionally been a liberal community. In just a matter of weeks, NHLA seems to be getting the attention that other landscaping groups have strived for.
Egües met this week with the Labor Department and at least a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have large Hispanic constituencies, including Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and David Wu (D-Ore.). Neither Member’s office responded to calls requesting comment.
Other landscape industry organizations have all but given up on direct meetings with federal agencies, and some believe that lawmakers’ influence over the agencies has eroded.
“The Department of Labor has gone wild, and there is a question about how much legislators can actually do to influence regulatory agencies,” said Tom Delaney, director of governmental affairs at the Professional Landcare Network, an international group that works on behalf of the entire industry, including suppliers and equipment manufacturers. “If they cared about us, they would have met with us before they proposed the regulations. They are just really out of control.”
Delaney said he hopes NHLA will have sway with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has historically opposed industry priorities, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who is Hispanic. A spokesman for the caucus was not familiar with the new group and declined to comment on its issues.
To be sure, NHLA is small by Washington standards, with members in just five states and an operating budget of less than $20,000 for its initial activities, including member recruitment and meetings in Washington.
That reality is not lost on Egües, who thanks the rosary in his pocket for the number of meetings he’s gotten on the Hill.
“We’re a little organization,” he said. “We can get eaten up real fast, so our strategies have to be different.”
Correction: May 6, 2011
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the landscape industry group for which Tom Delaney works. It is called the Professional Landcare Network.