The visa program was overwhelmed with demand this year, leaving Eastern Shore seafood processing plants without their typical work force. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
Federal immigration officials have agreed to approve 15,000 new guest worker visas for seasonal work, including in a Maryland crab industry grappling with a significant labor shortage, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris said Thursday.
U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services would not confirm any changes to its H-2B visa program, which brings 66,000 immigrants to the country for work that employers can show they are unable to hire Americans to do.
But Maryland's lone Republican congressman said the expected approval was imminent, and that he is working with President Donald Trump's administration to find a way to raise the cap on the visas or to allow Maryland seafood businesses to employ workers through a different visa program.
Still, he acknowledged that the 15,000 additional visas "is probably not going to be adequate."
"I applaud the administration for issuing new visas," he said in an interview. "I'm going to work with the administration to make sure we can reform the program so we can have an adequate number of workers next year."
The visa program was overwhelmed with demand this year, leaving Eastern Shore seafood processing plants without 40 percent of their typical work force, which picks the crabs and produces the meat used in restaurants and sold in supermarkets.
Harris said efforts to raise the visa cap have been stalled amid concerns from labor unions, who argue companies are exploiting foreign workers and lowering prevailing wages for Americans.
He said if efforts to find a compromise on reforms to the H-2B program fail, he has also talked with the administration about finding a way to classify seafood workers and also canning industry workers under the federal H-2A visa program. Those visas are used for seasonal agricultural work and are not subject to a cap.
Crab processors say the current H-2B visa limit is inadequate.
Maryland's crab industry is in crisis, with nearly half of the Eastern Shore businesses without any workers to pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets. They failed to get visas for the mostly Mexican laborers who pick the crabs when the Trump administration awarded them in a lottery.
They also said that approving 15,000 more for the nation will not be enough. They were pessimistic that their share of those visas would make a difference once crab harvesting picks up later this month.
When 33,000 visas were awarded in February for work from April through September, immigration officials picked the winners and losers by a lottery for the first time because of unprecedented demand — employers were seeking 47,000 visas.
If the next round of visas is again awarded by lottery, crab houses that lost once aren't necessarily expecting their luck to change and to solve their problem.
"I don't play the lottery and I don't like it done this way," said Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hooper's Island. "It's all by luck whether you get picked or not. It's not a professional way to do it."