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Trump administration permits 15,000 new foreign worker visas that could benefit crab industry

The Trump administration will permit 15,000 more foreign workers to enter the United States this year under a visa program that Maryland’s seafood industry has described as vital to its survival but that has drawn mounting criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

Crab-picking and oyster-shucking houses on the Eastern Shore have relied on a small number of foreign workers allowed into the country each year on H-2B visas. The visas permit foreigners to take temporary jobs in landscaping, at amusement parks or in other seasonal work. Those workers return to their country when the season ends.

The decision to expand the controversial program came as a surprise, given President Donald Trump’s hard line against immigration and his rhetoric on hiring American workers. The announcement came on the day that Trump launched a weeklong effort to highlight American goods and labor.

Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, described a severe shortage in labor in the industry, and predicted a “derby run” to secure the new foreign workers. Seafood producers will share the national allotment with other industries. They are expected to be able to apply this week.

“We certainly hope that this can be handled quickly enough to get a little bit of relief to salvage the end of the season,” said Brooks, who is president of J.M. Clayton Co., a seafood processor in Cambridge. “We just hope it’s not too late.”

Congress sets an annual cap of 66,000 H-2B visas. This year, the Department of Homeland Security received applications for all of those workers by the end of March. And so in May, lawmakers tucked a provision into a spending bill that allows the Labor and Homeland Security departments to approve additional visas if needed.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly framed the decision to increase the number of visas as providing “temporary relief to American businesses at risk of significant harm due to a lack of available seasonal workers.”

Still, the visa program has been controversial — and appears to be at odds with Trump's views on foreign workers. The president signed an executive order in April to overhaul a separate visa program that allows highly skilled foreigners to work in the United States, a review he said was necessary to “defend our workers, protect our jobs.”

Conservative and liberal groups alike questioned the decision to expand the number of low-skilled workers. Both have raised concerns that foreign workers depress wages and take jobs from U.S. citizens.

In a joint statement, Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said the program "hurts wages for American workers.”

Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, which seeks to limit immigration, was more direct.

“This is yet another example of the administration and Congress failing to keep the Trump campaign promise of putting American workers first,” he said.

Eastern Shore seafood leaders have said they cannot find Americans who will do the seasonal work they require.

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, questioned whether the labor shortages claimed by businesses that rely on H-2B visas is real. The group has found wages to be stagnant or in decline in most industries that use the visas, a point that would undercut claims of a shortage.

“Expanding the H-2B program without reforming it to improve protections and increase wages for migrant workers will essentially allow unscrupulous employers to carve out an even larger rights-free zone in the low-wage labor market,” Costa said in a statement.

The H-2B visa program has helped to guarantee a labor supply in the state’s seafood industry for the past two decades. It was championed by Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland before she retired last year.

Supporters have said the foreign seafood workers in Maryland return from year to year at a rate of 80 percent.

The seafood industry is the best known beneficiary of the visa program in Maryland, but it is not the largest, according to Labor Department statistics.

As in other states, the vast majority of H-2B visas in Maryland go to the landscaping industry. Out of 4,586 H-2B visas certified in 2015, about 450 went to “meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers.” The average wage offered for those jobs was $22,322, according to the department.

Hours after the announcement, Trump held an event at the White House to highlight manufacturing companies in all 50 states. Maryland was represented by a crab pot maker from Crisfield, Heath’s Crab Pots.

Administration officials said the companies were chosen in consultation with governors and members of Congress.

“Clearly it’s time for a new policy, one defined by two simple rules: We will buy American and we will hire American,” Trump said at the event, echoing a position he often took on the campaign trail.

“We want to build, create and grow more products in our country using American labor, American goods and American grit.”

Asked about the apparent conflict of championing the hiring of U.S. workers on the same day the administration increased the number of foreign workers, White House spokesman Sean Spicer pointed to Trump’s support for a broader immigration bill that also deals with refugees and green cards.

Maryland’s seafood industry has argued for years that local residents are not interested in the work of pulling apart blue crabs, mostly because the work is short-term. They say that argument has been proved again this year by how much they’ve struggled to find employees.

Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay seafood group, said he hopes a new crop of foreign workers will help the industry finish the season stronger than it began.

“We’ve got companies that have lost the better part of the season because they couldn’t get workers in the spring,” he said. “Something is better than nothing.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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