With the blaring music and the clanging machines and the screaming amusement riders, the Orange County Fair is a loud place.
But if you pay attention, you can hear the accents.
“Let it roll. Let it roll. Get it fast down the hole!”
The carnival booth worker is making his plea via a mic, but you can still tell he’s from South Africa.
Directly across, running a different game, is another South African: Dean Rossouw, one of about 300 foreign workers employed by the carnival company that runs the midway at the Orange County Fair, which ends Sunday, as well as the Los Angeles County Fair, which starts up Sept. 1, and several others across Southern California.
They’re just some of the roughly 5,500 circus, fair and carnival workers who are in the United States through the little-known H-2B visa program. In all, some 81,000 non-agricultural seasonal workers will spend up to 10 months in the United States this year under H-2B visas.
About half of the employers that tap into the program are in landscaping. Others include the crawfish and shrimp industries in Louisiana. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, in Palm Beach, Florida, uses H-2B visas to get housekeepers, cooks and servers.
Fair workers are among the most frequently requested H-2B employees. They come from all over the world, though for years there has been a human pipeline to carnivals in Southern California (and elsewhere) from Tlapacoyan, a small town in Veracruz, Mexico.
Many of the Mexican carnies come to the states to send money to family or build up their savings, and then return home each year. Many other carnies come from South Africa, some working the carnival as a way to see the world. Rossouw, from Cape Town, describes his life as a carnie in Southern California as “a bit of an adventure.”
They all get an hourly wage, or a weekly salary, based on the prevailing wage in the community where they’re working. Most also get lodging. Food and medical insurance are paid by the employees.
The foreign workers operate rides, work booths and peddle concessions. Rossouw oversees the “Beer Pong” game at the O.C. Fair. His booth features no beer, but it does involve getting ping pong balls into cups to win a prize. Back home, the 27-year-old trades stocks and monitors the gold and silver markets.
For his employer, Ray Cammack Shows, RCS, the visa program is a way to hire and train reliable employees who agree to live and travel with the carnival from February through…