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Senator hopes to extend visa law


A visa program that provides Latin American workers for Maryland's crab processing industry would be extended for another three years under legislation introduced by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Mikulski won praise last year for engineering a two-year agreement on the H2B visa program, which since 1990 has allowed workers to enter the United States for seasonal jobs with crab houses, landscaping companies and other industries. Because of last year's legislation, workers will be able to come to Maryland for this year's crab season.

Now Mikulski is trying to extend the rules to cover the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons.

"This extension is necessary to make sure that small, seasonal businesses don't run into the same crises," Mikulski said. "We'll continue to fight until we have a permanent fix to this issue."

The H2B program has permitted up to 66,000 workers a year to enter the United States to fill low-skill jobs that employers say Americans won't accept. The program also has support from lawmakers in Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine -- states where the hospitality and forestry industries rely on temporary workers who come for five- or six-month stints before returning to their homelands.

Under the old rules, the national quota was being filled by West Coast businesses before most Maryland seafood processors and others were allowed to apply for workers. But with the rules change adopted last year, Maryland seafood processors say they have already received approval for workers' visas for the 2006 season that begins in April.

Critics of the program say the cheap foreign labor keeps American wages low and therefore hurts American workers. Others say the program doesn't offer vulnerable workers enough protection from potential abuses. With no pending crisis, this year's bill likely faces a tougher fight.

But Eastern Shore crab processors are already planning an extensive lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. Face-to-face meetings with federal lawmakers proved effective last year, said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

"Of course, we're pushing the three-year extension," Sieling said. "We were the poster child, the public face of this whole thing last year, and we don't want to lose momentum. We're a small industry, based in rural communities, and I think there was a lot of empathy."

Maryland processors -- who endured an anxious spring waiting for about 500 Mexican women who pick crab meat and for the end of low temperatures that delayed harvesting -- say their season turned out to be a good one.

"Our production was up," said Jack Brooks, whose family owns J.M. Clayton's in Cambridge. "We had that late start, but we had a more consistent supply of crabs. Usually, we'll have a lull in August and September, but that never materialized."

State environmental officials say they're at a loss to explain the generally rosy reports from watermen and processors. Preliminary harvest reports show the 2005 take of blue crabs at 25.6 million pounds, off from the 32.3 million pounds watermen reported in 2004.

"Even if we go up 50,000 pounds or so when December is counted, we're still off from the previous year," said Lynn Fegley, who heads the Department of Natural Resources blue crab program. "I've talked to a lot of watermen and processors, and most are saying it was a good year."

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