A program that would be untouched by recently proposed immigration reform legislation allows thousands of foreign laborers to enter the United States each year.

The H-2B visa program brings 66,000 people from 62 countries each year to work temporarily for seasonal businesses such as landscaping, hospitality and food service. The administration of President Donald Trump just expanded the program to add 15,000 more workers in July, after businesses lobbied lawmakers for changes.

The 15,000-visa increase has been good news for some companies that count on foreign workers to keep their businesses thriving, or even surviving.

One that depends on such workers is Hidden Creek Landscaping on the West Side, where 30-year-old Ricardo Martinez Nolasco is employed.

Nolasco, a native of Queretaro, Mexico, has been coming to the United States to work for five years through the visa program. He supports his wife and two children with the money he makes working for Hidden Creek from February to November -- and is always eager to get back home to his family when his job in this country is done.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 3,263 H-2B seasonal positions were requested in Ohio in 2015 and 2,426 were certified.

Groundskeeping and landscaping companies like Hidden Creek use the program the most in Ohio, but the added visas likely weren't much help to that industry. Kerry Scott, program manager for Mas Labor based in Virginia, said that's because the landscaping season typically ends in November and these extra employees likely wouldn't get into the country to start work until September.

Gail Reinhart, human-resources manager at Hidden Creek, is constantly recruiting employees and casts about everywhere to find them locally. She works with the state Job and Family Services agency to post ads for candidates. Still, she said, she often can't find enough local employees who are willing to do the difficult work of landscaping.

Desperate for a reliable workforce, the company turned to H-2B workers in 2016.

"It's a supplement to help during those seasonal peaks and to give you some stability," Reinhart said. "It's not an easy program to use. it's very expensive. It's volatile."

Many may believe that companies use foreign workers to get cheap labor, but there are all kinds of requirements for how the companies must treat their employees. One of those is pay. The rate is more than $12 an hour and the companies have to pay fees to file the visa applications, pay for transportation to and from this country for employees, and often pay an agency to help it through the process, said Sandy Munley, executive director of the Ohio Landscape Association.

This year, Hidden Creek employed 24 H-2B workers -- all of last year's 16 came back and eight more were found through referrals from those returning workers.

In the peak season, the company employs 90 people. It now has 85 and is looking to hire seven or eight more.

Workers like Nolasco allow Hidden Creek to keep growing and support the jobs of other, American workers, Reinhart said. Without H-2B employees, the company wouldn't be able to fill all its positions and might have to turn away work, she said.

The H-2B program has critics, however.

One is Steve Salvi, founder of the Ohio Jobs and Justice PAC, who said the program has a lot of problems.

"What happens is American workers are displaced by the foreign workers coming in," he said. "If there was actually a need for workers, there might be a need for such a program."

He thinks the program should shut down.

Reinhart disagrees.

"We have a labor issue, we have a labor shortage," she said.

Since the H-2B program is first-come, first-served, Reinhart has already started working with Mas Labor, an agency that helps companies obtain H-2B visas and employees, to file applications for the workers she anticipates needing next year.

dking@dispatch.com

@DanaeKing