Recently, Gov. Larry Hogan fired off a letter to the federal labor secretary and acting homeland security secretary requesting that they take “immediate action” to increase the number of visas the U.S. provides to temporary foreign workers. The 33-year-old program, formally titled the H-2B Nonimmigrant Temporary Worker Program, has been vital to the Eastern Shore’s seafood processing houses for a generation. Immigrants, usually women and usually from Latin America, arrive each spring to turn steamed crabs into hand-packed tubs of crab meat. It is grueling, monotonous and not especially high-paying work. Without foreign workers, these crab houses would suffer as would the watermen who sell them crabs. And that’s why, each year around this time, Maryland’s governor and the state’s delegation to Congress have made this urgent request.
Without these temporary workers, the governor wrote in his Jan. 21 letter, “local seafood processors will be unable to open for business or be forced to significantly reduce their operations. Another year of hardship could permanently damage Maryland’s sustainable seafood industry, causing these iconic family and small businesses to close or constrict, which would have a devastating impact on commerce and jobs, particularly in economically disadvantaged areas of the state.”
If that plea sounds familiar, it should. Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley made a very similar one about a decade ago when the federal government was seeking to restrict H-2B visas. The federal government ultimately relented, providing more of the 66,000 H-2B visas authorized under law to go toward crab pickers. Even in the midst of the Great Recession, the immigrant workers had proved irreplaceable. As a University of Maryland Sea Grant study documented, the labors of each H-2B worker in the crab industry yielded 2.5 jobs for U.S. citizens (a statistic that apparently has legs as Governor Hogan included in his letter 11 years later).
The question is, how many more years of this microeconomics success story will it take before people put two and two together on the macroeconomic level? There is some irony that these crab houses and their need for immigrant labor are located in some of the most politically conservative areas of Maryland where the Trump administration’s salty antagonism toward immigration is eaten up like Old Bay seasoning. Temporary workers may not be on a path to citizenship but they might as well be. They live for most of the year in these rural communities. And yes, their presence is legal, but that’s because they had that opportunity. How many of those desperate men, women and children who have crossed the southwestern border illegally to escape hardship in their native countries would happily trade places with any crab picker working just as hard and under just as demanding conditions? How many would help create 2.5 more jobs if given the opportunity?
Perhaps the one thing that Democrats and Republicans, whether in Washington or in state capitals, can agree on is that this nation’s immigration system is broken. We are devoting far too much in resources to securing our borders and far too little to expanding the legal path to immigration in a fair and humane manner. The H-2B demonstrates how immigration can make life better in the U.S. Their presence doesn’t threaten U.S. jobs, their absence does.
Governor Hogan’s letter calls for a “long-term solution” as well, but it’s hard to believe that will get far, at least not in the current political environment. But he also suggests something else. He wants the Trump cabinet officials to come visit a Chesapeake Bay crab house to learn about the situation directly. We heartily endorse that idea. The more Americans, particularly those predetermined to distrust people who look different or speak a language other than English, get a chance to meet these individuals who come to Maryland in search of a better life the more likely we are to overcome those fears and, just maybe, find common ground with them.
Oh, and Mr. Hogan ought to extend that invitation to Rep. Andy Harris, the Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, and so often rails against “sanctuary” cities. The congressman recently referred to Montgomery County’s policies as “unbelievable" (apparently because the county does not hold prisoners of any description beyond their release dates). He could use a refresher course on what immigration means to his district, to his state and to this country.