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End of seasonal visas threatens crab processors

The Baltimore Sun

A special visa program that has supplied Maryland's seafood industry with foreign workers is about to expire, and owners of crab-picking houses on the Eastern Shore say their livelihood is once again in jeopardy.

The law that extended the H2B visa program, which has brought workers from Mexico and other countries to the Shore during the past decade, is set to expire tomorrow. While the thousands of workers already in Maryland will be able to stay until their seasonal jobs end in a month or two, they have no guarantee they'll be able to come back next year.

And if the workers don't return, their employers say, the packing houses would have to shut down. That could spread economic hardship throughout the entire Shore, with plenty of local crabbers, drivers and packers losing their jobs, too.

"It's simple - either we get our workers or we're out of business," said processor Harry Phillips, who owns Russell Hall Seafood on Hoopers Island. "If we're out of business, you're going to see watermen out of business, too."

Since 1990, the H2B program has allowed foreign workers into the country on a temporary visa that allows them to work in seasonal industries, such as landscaping, fisheries and hotels. For most of those years, the program worked smoothly - workers were happy to come because they made far more than what they could earn at home, and employers were happy to have them as it became increasingly difficult to find American workers for the jobs.

But the program appeared to be heading for trouble in 2004, when the national cap of 66,000 workers was reached in March. Employers can't apply for the visas any earlier than 120 days before they need their workers. Most seafood processors - who use the workers to pick the meat from steamed crabs, then put it in small plastic tubs - got their workers that year, but several other industries that have later starts were shut out.

Then, in 2005, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which is now under the Department of Homeland Security, announced that the cap had been filled by January 4 - so early that most of Maryland's seafood processors weren't even allowed to apply yet. Their season runs from about April to Thanksgiving.

The processors went to Capitol Hill, where they had found an ally in U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The Maryland Democrat pushed for an expansion to the H2B limits, but the issue kept getting mired in the larger national debate on immigration.

Undeterred, Mikulski led efforts to slip emergency legislation into an unrelated Iraq-spending bill so that workers who had held seasonal jobs in the U.S. in the past, such as most of the Shore's crab pickers, could return to those jobs in 2005 and 2006 regardless of the national cap. Last year, she again got language included in a defense bill to extend the provision one more year.

This year, she introduced several similar measures. But despite months of debate on immigration, none of those bills received a vote. Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the senator is continuing to fight for an extension but declined to discuss specifics.

"All I can tell you is that she's going to do everything she can," Schwartz said.

That's welcome news on Hoopers Island, a sliver of marshy land where both the seasonal workers, mostly from Mexico, and their employers have been on tenterhooks awaiting news.

Two of Harry Phillips' workers, Filiberto Lopez Montes, 26, and Rosa Hernandez Rosales, 28, met at the crab house three years ago. Each year since, they've been saving for their wedding. Montes and other workers can make $10,000 or more for their six- to eight-month stays here - money that can go far enough back home to build a house.

"In Mexico, I make no money - maybe $50 a week," Lopez Montes says.

Despite its popularity on the Shore, the H2B program has critics. Some Republicans in Congress worry that cheap foreign labor keeps American wages low. Immigrant advocates worry that the program doesn't offer enough protection from abuse; workers are especially beholden to their bosses because, if they lose their jobs, they could be forced to leave the country. Some union advocates have likened the program to slave labor. And immigration critics say the program buttresses a market geared to doing everything in the cheapest way possible.

"We aren't opposed to seasonal work programs, provided there's empirical evidence that there is real need," said Bob Dane, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Our immigration policy is importing cheap labor and outsourcing better-paying jobs. The equilibrium isn't right."

Don Mooers disagrees. As counsel to Save Small Businesses, a group dedicated to extending the H2B provisions, he said critics don't understand how guest workers keep the Shore's economy afloat - ensuring jobs for watermen, drivers and shift managers.

"Either Congress acts, or businesses die - that's what it gets down to," Mooers said. "At least as far as the Eastern Shore is concerned, a way of life will be a thing of the past."

Maryland's crab processors say they will continue to work politicians on Capitol Hill, a place that they are coming to know well, to lobby on behalf of themselves and other seasonal business-owners in far-away states who can't get to Washington quickly. They can't really begin the lengthy processing of getting visas for the workers they'll need next year without action by Congress - action they hope comes soon.

"In realistic terms, we won't have our workers next year, or if we do, it will be quite, quite late," said Jack Brooks, president of J.M. Clayton Co., the Eastern Shore's oldest picking house.

Brooks, who began using the visa program to hire workers in 1997, said he turned to it only after every other attempt to get local Maryland workers failed. Most of the buildings around his business on the Cambridge waterfront have been converted into condos. He figures his business would have gone the same way without his 75 H2B workers.

Brooks is worried that he will have to close, putting in jeopardy the jobs of at least 50 Maryland-based workers, plus his suppliers, in addition to the seasonal foreign workers who depend on the income.

Jay Newcomb, a Dorchester County councilman who works as general manager at A.E. Phillips & Son on the island, worries that further delays will only cloud the need for the program - especially in the middle of presidential primary season.

"The public as a whole and maybe some in Congress are upset about immigration," said Newcomb. "People just don't understand what this means to us."

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