Veronica Birkenstock seems like a typical Trump Republican. She wants to build the wall, deport undocumented immigrants, and was livid when Kate Steinle’s killer was acquitted. But behind the “America First” rhetoric, her resume contains a bitter irony that complicates her growing political ambitions: Birkenstock makes a living importing cheap foreign labor.
Birkenstock runs Practical Employee Solutions, which facilitates H-2B visas for temporary foreign workers. And she has one very notable client: the Trump International Beach Resort in Miami.
Practical Employee Solutions has filed H-2B visa applications for more than 100 temporary foreign workers to fill positions as maids, waiters, pool attendants, and bartenders at the resort. President Donald Trump makes liberal use of the program for his resorts and golf clubs, including his “winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago, which in July put in applications for 78 new seasonal foreign workers. Trump himself doesn’t own the International Beach Resort, but licenses his name to it. Last year, he brought in between $100,000 and $1 million in income for the resort’s use of the Trump brand, according to his personal financial disclosure statement.
Beyond helping facilitate the temporary work supply for Trump’s resorts, Birkenstock is also a Trump campaign fundraiser who was once listed as a member of the president’s Labor Department transition team.
She is also now running for Congress, having officially declared her candidacy this month in Texas’ 26th Congressional District, where she hopes to unseat veteran Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), one of the House’s most conservative Republicans.
Running to Burgess’ right is a tough sell. To do it, Birkenstock, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has cozied up to big names in Trumpworld, aligned herself with candidates like recently defeated Alabama Republican Roy Moore, and taken a “drain the swamp” approach that emphasizes the incumbent’s 15 years in Washington and Congress’ general ineffectiveness. She says she is “frustrated with the current long-term Representative not getting the job done as promised.”
But she also appears to recognize that her professional record may be a potential liability in a Republican primary. Birkenstock’s campaign website has an entire page devoted to debunking “myths” about H-2B visas, which grant foreigners a temporary stay in the U.S. to work seasonal, non-agricultural jobs.
It’s a program that has drawn vehement criticism from elements of Trump’s political base. Breitbart News, the nationalist news website run by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, frequently criticizes the program for displacing American workers, or driving down their wages.
Birkenstock disputes that characterization. She insists that H-2B wages are often on par with those of domestic workers and notes, correctly, that U.S. law requires employers to seek out domestic employees before filling job openings with temporary foreign workers (though investigations have found that many employers go to great lengths to circumvent that requirement).
“This was an America First program long before it became a political slogan,” Birkenstock insisted in a radio interview last week. “Donald Trump uses the program!”
Still, Birkenstock’s professional background landed her at the center of a minor controversy shortly after Trump’s election. The Trump transition team’s website initially listed her as a member of its Labor Department “beachhead” team. After a report in The Intercept highlighted the nature of her business, however, she was removed from the website and the transition claimed she had been accidentally listed. Birkenstock’s campaign website says she “has served on the President’s Transition Finance Team and has worked with the Department of Labor in the critical issues that impact employment.”
Birkenstock isn’t just employed in the H-2B field, she’s a political activist in service of the program. Her campaign websites boasts that she is a “frequent visitor on Capitol Hill working with Senators and Congressmen throughout the United States as a ‘grassroots activist.’” In March, her company organized a Capitol Hill fly-in for advocates “to discuss the hardships the H-2B guest-worker visa program faces with members of Congress.”
The other two companies that organized the fly-in—Amigos Labor Solutions and Action Visa Assistance—are in the same business as Birkenstock’s PES. And the owners of both of those companies have helped finance her campaign. Action Visa Assistance’s Lori Whitten has donated the maximum $5,400 while Amigos Labor Solutions’ Robert Wingfield and his wife have chipped in $3,700.
While it’s unclear how involved Trump himself might be in boosting Birkenstock’s campaign, other PES’ clients have provided an early financial boost. Birkenstock received double the legal maximum from Donald Semmler, a former Marriott executive whose new company, Local Hotel Adventures LLC, has enlisted PES’ services to request H-2B visas for 18 foreign workers. The campaign redesignated the excess contributions to Semmler’s wife. PES has also facilitated H-2B applications for 1,475 foreign workers since 2014 for carnival company Ray Cammack Shows, whose owners, Guy and Charlene Leavitt, donated a combined $8,400 to Birkenstock’s campaign.
That campaign is drawing staff from local politics in the Dallas area. Its executive director, Lisa Hendrickson, led the Denton County Republican Party until her resignation in October. Prior to then, Hendrickson faced criticism for sharing stories on Twitter suggesting that the white supremacist attack on demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, which killed one demonstrator, was staged. Birkenstock’s treasurer, Nancy Dillard, worked under Hendrickson at the Denton GOP. The campaign has also paid for consulting services from Ed Griffin, the president of the Republican Party of neighboring Frisco County.
Despite enlisting some prominent names in Dallas-area Republican politics, Hendrickson has an uphill climb to the nomination. Burgess, a 15-year incumbent who’s raised seven times as much money as Birkenstock so far, hasn’t been named among any of Trumpworld’s likely 2018 primary targets. Indeed, the seismic shifts in the ideological makeup of Trump’s Republican Party probably make Birkenstock’s task more difficult. And her attempts to downplay an apparent clash between her business background and the rhetoric of the party’s ascendant Trumpian wing suggest that she’s fully cognizant of that.
To combat that potential albatross, Birkenstock has sought to build alliances to the nationalist wing of the GOP. When Moore held a rally the night before his upset loss this month to Democrat Doug Jones, she joined him on stage, and snapped some pictures throughout the night with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Bannon, whose Breitbart News has so strenuously criticized the H-2B program.
She expressed no apparent concern with allegations that Moore had sexually assaulted and harassed minors when he was in his thirties. There was “no proof” of the charges, Birkenstock insisted on her Facebook page. “We know that one of the accusers committed fraud, and I hope the truth comes all [sic] and ALL are held accountable.”
At the end of the day, she said, “I’m proud that I stood for #MAGA and that will not change in any other race—including the one for our district 26.”