Opponents say that the current rules keep wages artificially low, depressing the market for U.S. workers who might consider the jobs if they paid better. The groups also have pointed to examples in other industries in which the guest workers have been cheated out of wages and forced to endure squalid conditions.

"Of course the employers are screaming, because they're going to have to pay a little more," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which frequently defends immigrants and guest workers. "But the purpose of the program has never been to provide employers with cheap labor."

The fight against the new wages has created a rare political alignment in the state, putting Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski on the same side as Republican Rep. Andy Harris. In separate interviews, both lawmakers called on the administration to delay implementation of the new rule.

Mikulski has had success advocating for the industry in the past, particularly in 2005, when she moved legislation through Congress that exempted certain returning workers from counting toward a nationwide cap on the number of H-2B visas issued.

This time, Mikulski said, she is prepared to fight for the seafood industry again — and said she is confident she has support from a majority of Congress.

"First of all, the Department of Labor decided to change the rules of the game in the middle of the season," Mikulski said. "I think they've gotten bad advice, and I'm going to fight for those jobs."

Saying she and other coastal lawmakers are "crabby" with the department, Mikulski also noted that the administration has refused her requests to discuss the issue because of the pending lawsuit in Louisiana.

"I had hoped to be able to talk to the Department of Labor to be able to have a rational conversation," she said, "but they lawyered up."

Harris, a Baltimore County Republican whose district includes the Eastern Shore, cast the issue in terms of job creation. Washington has stepped up its rhetoric on unemployment after President Barack Obama sent a $447 billion jobs package to Congress on Monday.

"We're at a critical time in the American economy, and the last thing we can afford to do is issue yet another regulation that will send American jobs overseas," Harris said. "If they don't have those workers, these businesses will close up and eliminate all the other jobs that are associated with the businesses."

But any attempt to address the issue in Congress is likely to run into the politically charged debate over illegal immigration. Lawmakers have all but given up on a comprehensive approach to reforming immigration policy, and even proposals that enjoyed bipartisan support in the past — such as allowing certain young immigrants brought to the country by their parents to seek citizenship — have faltered.

Brooks and others who support changing the new wage rule separate the two issues faster than fingers can pull meat from a crab.

"This is not an immigration issue," he said. "They come here, they work and they go home."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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