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Visa Delays Affect Tourist Businesses

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) _ Visa delays in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks are leaving some tourist-oriented businesses without the seasonal foreign workers they depend on, and a group of Michigan businesses is suing to break the logjam.

``We have no help,'' said Kathy Wilson, owner of two small inns near Lake Michigan. ``We had seven Jamaicans last year and this year we were scheduled for 10. None are here yet and I have no idea when they'll arrive.''

Similar complaints are heard elsewhere. At Vorellis restaurant in Provincetown, Mass., manager Connie Moquist in desperation paid a $1,000 fee to expedite approval of visas.

``We bring in only two people but they're crucial for our kitchen,'' Moquist said. ``One lady has been coming for 11 years. We never had these delay problems in the past. It's been very upsetting and we think it's very unfair.''

In Michigan, Wilson and 12 other business owners are suing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service over delays in processing visa applications for temporary workers. After a hearing Monday in Detroit, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman ordered the INS to respond to the lawsuit within 60 days.

Derri Thomas, an assistant U.S. attorney who represented the INS during the hearing, said the agency is conducting more extensive background checks on visa applicants since the Sept. 11 attacks.

``They are just proceeding with more caution and being as thorough as possible,'' she said.

Before hiring foreign workers, a business must satisfy state officials it has made good-faith efforts to recruit Americans. Many business owners say it's hard to find Americans willing to work as housekeepers and dishwashers.

``They want to come in late and leave early. Or you hire them and the next day they don't show up,'' said Wilson, whose motels are in the western Michigan coastal village of Saugatuck.

The number of visas issued for temporary workers has jumped dramatically in recent years and totaled around 56,000 in 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor says.

Employers are prohibited from submitting visa applications for seasonal foreign workers until 120 days before the workers are needed. The requirement is meant to ensure the applications reflect up-to-date labor market conditions, but a paperwork snafu could mean weeks of delay and leave businesses short-handed at peak tourist season.

``It seems to have gotten much harder to get these applications processed in a timely manner, and when you're talking about a seasonal business every week can count,'' said John Gay, vice president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. ``You have a limited amount of time to make money that lasts you all year.

``You can only assume it's a result of all the things going on with Sept. 11. I understand there's more of a burden on the INS, but ... I'd still like to see them focus more on getting the seasonal visas done first because of the urgent timing.''

Last summer _ before Sept. 11 _ the INS started a program called ``premium processing.'' It promises that businesses paying $1,000 per job category will get a decision within 15 days.

``My members look at that as extortion,'' said Dave Siegel, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

A premium processing option ``is not necessarily a bad concept ... as long as the standard process is working,'' he said. ``But the way things are now, you're getting squeezed _ either pay the premium processing fee or your folks won't be arriving.''

The Michigan businesses contend in their lawsuit that the policy is discriminatory.

``It's patently unfair to say you can have expedited processing only if you can afford to pay these exorbitant fees,'' said Bob Birach, a Detroit lawyer representing the Michigan businesses.

But now, many businesses that have resisted paying the fee are deciding whether to give in.

At Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Steamboat Springs, Colo., human resources director Marcia Whittaker paid $5,000 to expedite applications.

``We're struggling to provide the level of service our customers are used to,'' she said. ``I feel like we're being held hostage.''
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