The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced it will issue an additional 15,000 guest worker, or H-2B, visas this year above previous allocations, allowing more immigrant workers to come to the United States to fill job vacancies.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who said in May that the additional issuance was imminent, called the 15,000 “a start,” though he added there’s still more work to do since they won’t accommodate the full demand this year.
“These additional visas are significant progress while Congress seeks a long-term solution to reform the H-2B program,” Harris said in a statement. “Congress failed to raise the program’s visa limit this year, and we must reform the program to accommodate demand and keep America’s small seasonal businesses open.”
Harris added that the drop in unemployment has increased the demand for temporary seasonal workers, causing Maryland’s seafood processing industry and other seasonal industries to suffer.
Federal labor officials said there was “unprecedented” demand for H-2B visas in January. They received applications for 81,000 foreign workers when only 33,000 visas nationwide were available for work from April through September.
Eastern Shore seafood processing plants are without 40 percent of their typical workforce, which picks the crabs and produces the meat used in restaurants and sold in supermarkets. They failed to get visas for their mostly Mexican workforce, including many women who have been coming north to Maryland for crab season for as long as two decades. The Trump administration for the first time awarded them this year in a lottery, instead of on a first-come, first-served basis.
Bill Sieling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said the announcement was good news.
Sieling said companies will wait for more details about whether the additional visas will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis or continue as a lottery, a process he called problematic and like “picking out of a hat.”
“It’s the luck of the draw. We just think that’s very unfair and unprofessional. People who have done right for years, who have been good players, they deserve a better treatment than this,” Sieling said, adding that the seasonal job issue has become convoluted with immigration — politicizing it in recent years.
“The political climate is so toxic on this issue everybody's just afraid to touch it,” he said.
Sieling said having Americans who live within driving distance of the facilities in which immigrants now largely work would cut back on costs and paperwork involved with acquiring this visas, “but we don’t have people who want to do that.”
Sieling said the jobs are often located in remote, less populated areas and involve physical work. “It’s not an occupation you aspire to unless you come from a country like Mexico, where it’s a huge opportunity for them,” and where several months of work can help support a family or build a home.
“As much as Americans are suffering, these people are desperate to take these jobs,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this report.