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Trump administration releases 35,000 more guest worker visas, but Maryland’s seafood industry remains troubled

Financial need can often force workers from their homes in Mexico to Maryland's Eastern Shore to fulfill temporary low-wage service jobs in the crab industry.

The Trump administration said Thursday it would double the number of visas available under a guest worker program this spring and summer, but a representative for Maryland seafood processors said that may not be enough for the industry to operate at full steam this year.

The U.S. will allow 35,000 more guest workers into the country for the six months beginning April 1, on top of the 33,000 visas regularly allotted for that period. Companies applied for nearly 100,000 visas earlier this year.

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Maryland’s crab industry relies on the program for workers who pick the meat sold in grocery stores and restaurants for crab cakes or crab imperial, but it has faced increasing competition for the visas over the past decade or so, largely from landscaping and hospitality companies. Crab houses concentrated on Hoopers Island in Dorchester County apply for about 450 of the visas each year but received only about a third of that in this year’s lottery.

Jack Brooks, one of the owners of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. and president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, called the news “encouraging,” but said he remains concerned a worker shortage could slow this year’s crabbing season, which begins April 1. The industry is looking for a permanent solution for what has become almost a perennial issue, through some sort of visa cap exemption.

“This is something, but it’s not a fix,” Brooks said. “I fear it’s not going to be enough to help these folks so everybody gets staffed up here.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it would release 20,000 of the additional visas April 1, and 15,000 on May 15. It also is designating 10,000 of the visas specifically for workers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and also largely limiting the extra visas to those who have previously worked in the U.S. under the H-2B program and “are known to follow immigration law in good faith.”

Both of those changes are of concern to the Maryland seafood companies because most of their workers are women from Mexico who return to Hoopers Island year after year.

Maryland agriculture officials said this week that if the industry doesn’t get more workers, economic activity could suffer, especially in rural waterside communities such as Hoopers Island. Based on an industry survey, they estimated it could cost the state more than 1,000 jobs and as much as $150 million in economic activity.

Maryland seafood processors reported paying $19 million for 14 million pounds of crabs last year, and selling the meat for $37 million. The dockside value of all Maryland crabs (including the jumbo-sized crustaceans eaten with hammer and mallet) was $47 million in 2017, according to state data.

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