Leaders of Maryland's seafood industry are cheering an expansion of a guest worker program they deem critical for crab season as part of the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill signed by President Barack Obama this month.
But industry leaders say they are concerned about the future.
Labor unions, civil rights groups — and, increasingly, political conservatives — have taken aim at the program that brings tens of thousands of seasonal workers to the country annually, including for the crab-picking and oyster-shucking seasons on the Eastern Shore.
Critics say companies could fill the jobs with U.S. workers if they were willing to pay higher wages, and some immigrant advocates say the program is exploitative.
Moreover, the seafood industry's biggest champion on Capitol Hill — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland — is retiring. Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has for years been instrumental in protecting the program, defying labor and the Obama administration. She is not seeking re-election next year.
"This whole industry is hanging by a thread," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, who said the guest worker program is vital for the state's roughly 15 remaining processors. "The companies that we have left are truly the survivors."
Seafood processors and other employers have long argued that the H-2B visa program helps them fill jobs that Americans are reluctant to take. Workers pay taxes on their earnings and return to their home country when the season is over. Sieling said the same workers return year after year.
Provisions in the spending legislation will expand the program, exempting returning workers from an annual cap of 66,000 visas. The new law also will allow private companies to study and report the prevailing wage for the work, rather than relying on the government to set what would almost certainly be a much higher hourly rate.
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center called the provisions a "sellout to corporate interests." In a statement, Naomi Tsu, an attorney with the group's Immigrant Justice Project, directly blamed Mikulski for "these shameful measures."
Independent federal auditors at the Government Accountability Office have raised concerns about the recruitment and treatment of the foreign workers. Lawsuits have been filed in some cases, including some brought by federal and state prosecutors, which allege poor living conditions for workers and companies paying them less than promised.
The guest worker program also been caught up in the broader partisan fight over immigration, drawing fire from conservatives who say the imported workers displace blue-collar Americans looking for jobs.
That has prompted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to defend the program.
"There's one provision that I think has been so misconstrued, so misinformed and distorted, which is the H-2B visa program," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, defending the initiative on a radio program this week. "It would result in less than 10,000 temporary workers coming to America next year for those industries that have work shortages, like surging industries that are seasonal — seafood processing in Chesapeake Bay, the seafood processing industry in Maine."
For her part, Mikulski has never wavered on the issue, even in the face of criticism from fellow Democrats. She has frequently confronted U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a fellow Marylander, on the visa program. In recent years, the Labor Department has proposed additional regulations for the program that the seafood industry has opposed.
Perez was briefly considered a possible candidate for Mikulski's seat and is still the subject of speculation about the 2018 gubernatorial election.
"I'm on the side of jobs and standing up for the lives and livelihoods of seafood workers and communities on the Eastern Shore," Mikulski said in a statement. "I have consistently fought for an approach to the H-2B program that recognizes that one size does not fit all."
The seafood industry is a relatively small player in the program. Most H-2B workers are hired as landscapers, amusement park workers and housekeepers, according to federal data.
Given the size of the recent federal spending measure, which will fund all government operations through next fall, the guest worker program received little attention until the bill appeared on track for passage. Both chambers passed the legislation by wide bipartisan votes.
That raises another question for supporters and critics of the program: Who will lead the legislative effort for the seafood industry when Mikulski steps down in 2017.
The issue has often been settled as part of the annual appropriations process, where Mikulski holds sway. While lawmakers from North Carolina, Virginia and other states support the program, only Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana serves on the Appropriations Committee.
The provisions inserted into the current spending bill will expire at the end of September, just ahead of a presidential election that is sure to complicate legislative efforts on many issues.
"We're under no illusion that 2016 is going to be a great year to get things passed into law," said Margaret B. Henderson, executive director of the Gulf Seafood Institute, which supports the seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Senator Mikulski has been an absolute champion on this," Henderson said. "We're going to have to groom some new champions."