Hoopers Island — The dozen crab pickers sharing a ranch home on this secluded Chesapeake Bay archipelago have decorated the bedroom walls with a Mexican flag, a crucifix, pictures of smiling kids at Christmas — all designed to soften a sense of being totally alone.
The seasonal workers are among about 400 who arrive on Maryland’s Eastern Shore nearly every year, mostly from Mexico. They endure months of cultural and geographical isolation in exchange for paychecks from crab processing plants of hundreds of dollars a week to help support their families back home.
It is a sensitive time politically both for the workers, who are nearly all women, and for the H-2B visa program, which grants them temporary entrance to the United States. They work tedious shifts, some in the middle of the night, using tiny knives to extract the crabmeat sold in restaurants and grocery stores.
Vowing to put American workers first and protect the nation’s security, President Donald Trump threatened earlier this year to close the southern border and impose tariffs on Mexican goods. He has called Mexico an “abuser” of the United States and said Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
More recently, the Mexican government expressed outrage over the murder in August of eight Mexican nationals who were among 22 people killed at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
The H-2B program, which is more than 30 years old, has continued under Trump, although crab processing plants complained they were left short-handed last year because the administration didn’t allow enough workers into the country.
To get the visas, companies must first demonstrate they can’t recruit American workers ― through advertising and other means — to fill the jobs.
Melva Guadalupe Vazquez, 28, who came here from central Mexico in the spring under the program, knows that not everyone believes Mexican workers are needed.
Critics of the visa program, including immigration hard-liners, argue that guest workers potentially shut out Americans and lower the bar on what is appropriate to pay relatively unskilled labor.
Vazquez pauses and her eyes fill with tears at the idea that she and other guest workers are taking American jobs.
“When I hear that I get really mad,” said Vazquez, who arrived with her iPhone loaded with photos and videos of her son, 7, and daughter, 11. “It makes me mad because when I’m working I look at my hands and they’re bleeding, they’re hurt, they’re tired."
She believes most Americans “truly don’t want to be doing this.”
Big demand for workers
Demand for the H-2B program is so high that congressional Democrats and Republicans often complain there aren’t enough visas for such industries as seafood processing, landscaping, housekeeping and amusement parks. So many applicants — including Maryland crab houses — logged into a U.S. Department of Labor website in the first moments of Jan. 1 seeking the worker visas that the system crashed within five minutes, according to the department.
Crab processors and other businesses say the program’s popularity demonstrates what Americans are willing — and unwilling — to do in a favorable economy and how the nation relies on foreign workers to fill employment gaps, particularly in low-wage service jobs.
“We cannot find [domestic] workers,” said Jay Newcomb, owner of Old Salty’s Restaurant in Fishing Creek. “We’ve done job fairs, we’ve contacted the detention centers, run ads all over the East Coast. We’ve tried colleges and temp agencies.”
Newcomb, also a Democratic member of the Dorchester County Council, said the foreign workers help prop up the local economy. Without them, he said, there would be far less demand for such products as boxes and packaging for the crabmeat, and oil to power the boilers that steam the crustaceans.
Pushback comes from those who say the H-2B program is inconsistent with Trump’s pledge to put American workers first.
“The way you draw idle people back into the world of work is to keep the labor market tight, not by pulling in guest workers,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank supporting tighter immigration controls.
The Trump administration counters that businesses could be irreparably harmed if they can’t tap into foreign labor when there aren’t enough American workers to sustain them.
Trump himself has used H-2B workers as cooks, servers and housekeepers at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, according to online Department of Labor records. “We are an exclusive, high-end private club located in Palm Beach, Florida,” said an H-2B application for Mar-a-Lago housekeepers this year. “We offer social and recreational activities for which demand greatly increases during Florida’s peak season from October through May.”
In a series of interviews conducted mostly in Spanish, Vazquez and other workers appeared torn about how — or whether — to respond to critical statements about seasonal workers and Mexico. Vazquez cited Trump’s comments and accused him of “racismo,” Spanish for racism. Others hedged their comments so as not to seem ungrateful or jeopardize future job opportunities that their families have come to rely on.
“I’m not here to take anyone’s job. There are a lot of Latino hands in this country lifting up the economic life of this country,” said Vazquez, who has traveled to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for crab season the past three years. “I do not accept or agree with the ideals of the president we currently have here in the United States, but I also respect the decisions that are made, good or bad. As long as we are offered work visas, then we’ll be here,” she said.
Vazquez was interviewed at the ranch house, where women sleep on bunk beds and hang their clothes on a line outside. The laborers say they must constantly wash clothes because the pungent crab smell seems to attach itself to the material.
“I don’t mind because the smell of crabs is the smell of money," said Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, of Veracruz, who has been a guest worker for nearly 30 years. Pickers add to their hourly rate ― generally $9.60 — based on their production, and some earn more than $500 a week.
In return, they spend as long as eight months — some arrive in April and don’t leave until November — in a location that could hardly be more remote.
“We’re here alone,” Garcia said. “We don’t know anyone. We just know each other.”
“The hardest thing is to be apart from your family,” said another worker, Eva Barrera Martinez, 42, of Hidalgo, Mexico. "But you have to get used to it. ... We’re far away and we have to work really hard to be able to support our families.”
Fifteen miles of pine forests, tidal marshes and waving sea grass separate the rest of Dorchester County from this string of three islands collectively known as Hoopers.
The laborers describe the surrounding Chesapeake Bay and Honga River as “beautiful” but intimidating. The water laps up against narrow causeways, and flooding and erosion are constant concerns. From some island vantage points, the water is visible on three sides.
Hoopers Island has limited development and poor cellphone reception, and “a lot of the women talk about it as the land that time left behind,” said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, a cultural and medical anthropologist at the University of Maryland who has studied immigration here and elsewhere on the Eastern Shore.
The workers, Sangaramoorthy said, “are often living in these really cramped quarters with women they don’t know. They sleep during these odd times and hours. It’s not your normal cycle of a day.”
Lacking cars, the laborers rarely leave Hoopers except for grocery shopping and church visits. Most seldom stray from the picking plants and their living quarters, which are sometimes housed in the same structure.
“A lot of the Hispanic people are afraid of going to certain stores because there are some people who look at them disapprovingly,” said Margarita Marquez, an outreach worker at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners Catholic church in Cambridge. “But they know how to avoid those situations.”
The workers have almost no social contact with the locals in Dorchester County, a conservative, water-oriented community that is the birthplace of abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman.
“We run into them at the general store, the post office,” said Mary Jo Bosley, a retiree who lives on Hoopers Island. While those encounters are cordial, she said, there is little further socializing. “Part of it is because they work so hard,” she said.
Dorchester County State’s Attorney William H. Jones is among those who worry that in their isolation, the women could be targets for robbers or other assailants — and he is mindful that the foreign workers might feel afraid to report any crime.
Jones said he hears periodically about “street robberies and things like that” against the laborers and others in the Latino population.
Some who know the workers said they have heard about incidents of abuse in the past, though women interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said they’d not had any problems.
Marquez, the church liason, and other advocates say they try to look out for the visitors.
But it’s a challenge, Jones said, to advocate for a community that is wary of outsiders and determined not to complain or cause trouble for their employers.
“They’re very much a part of the community, but at the same time they’re not,” he said.
‘Get me a Band-Aid’
Commercial crab picking is painstaking work. There is no talking, and the pace never slows.
At Lindy’s Seafood, where Vazquez and Garcia work, shifts may begin at 2 a.m. They run up to 10 hours, depending on the volume of crabs, with a one-hour lunch break. Then those few dozen workers sleep, and a new shift arrives.
Before a typical stint, Vazquez rises from one of three bunk beds in the air-conditioned bedroom she shares with five other women. On the walls are butterfly decals and pictures of her kids, including one of her son with Santa Claus.
Vazquez heard about the program from other workers and a local recruiter in Ciudad del Maíz, the central Mexico municipality where she lives. She and her co-workers are largely beholden to others — to middlemen who recruit them in Mexico, to the American employers who hire them, and to the U.S. government, which must approve their visas.
Last spring’s trip to Maryland involved several days of bus rides and a six-hour processing wait at the border town of Nuevo Laredo. “We leave our kids and they’re so young, so it’s really difficult to talk about,” Vazquez said. “Sometimes you lie. You have to tell your children, you know, ‘It’ll just be a few days.’ ”
Before heading for work, she pushes her hair into a bun and places a white hairnet and a ball cap on her head. She packs a lunch, a pair of gloves and two small crab picking knives, then walks down a narrow road a quarter-mile to work.
“We’re here alone. We don’t know anyone. We just know each other.”— Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, of Veracruz, who has been a guest worker for nearly 30 years
Inside the plant — a squat, white cinder block building — the crabs are wheeled in on a dolly the size of a small dumpster, then placed in piles on a long, stainless steel tables for picking.
The gloved workers crack the shells and quickly maneuver their knives, piling the meat into small plastic containers marked with numbers to identify how much each laborer extracted.
The only sound — save occasionally for Spanish-language music — is a constant rustling as the knives work and the shells are cracked. Some workers can finish picking a crab in 30 seconds.
“You’re going so fast that you’re bound to cut your hand, and it hurts because the crabmeat is salty,” Vazquez said. “The juice of the crab goes into your cut and it burns like someone is putting lime on your cuts. I’ll say, ‘Martha, go get me a Band-Aid.’ ”
When she returns to Mexico, she says, her kids say she smells like crabs.
Visa shortages have been a problem for the seafood industry since the last generations of Eastern Shore women who once picked crabmeat aged out of the work several decades ago.
Many of the blue crabs sold in Maryland come from the Carolinas or Louisiana, and some meat comes from Asia or Venezuela. But a premium is placed on local meat, with a state program called “True Blue” to identify and market Maryland crabs.
Selling crabmeat to supermarkets and restaurants is particularly profitable for Eastern Shore plants. Selling crabs whole usually yields far less money.
In the 1980s, crab houses started bringing workers from Mexico.
“We need the H-2B program,” said former Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who championed the program before retiring at the end of 2016. “It protects American jobs like our seafood industry. It rewards people who go by the rules.”
But last year, changes to the program left crab processing plants in Dorchester County teetering on the precipice, with half of the county’s eight picking houses unable to secure enough visas.
Without enough pickers, family businesses such as Lindy’s “had a lot of conversations that were really scary about how are we going to get through this,” said sales manager Aubrey Vincent. She said Lindy’s — which usually has annual sales of about $9 million to $10 million — had to unload many crabs whole instead of selling their meat to restaurants and grocery stores much more profitably. Selling crabs whole usually yields at least 50 percent less money.
“It really, really hurt us,” Vincent said. “I was down 50 to 60 percent in production and sales revenue in 2018.”
Other plants also reported revenues being cut nearly in half, and Dorchester’s economy felt the effects.
“It’s a big loss when we can’t have [the workers],” said Susan Banks, the county’s director of economic development.
In Dorchester — which Trump won handily in the 2016 election — some crab plant owners questioned whether the president was committed to the program.
“If he’s supportive, why didn’t he make a phone call [last year] to release extra workers?” said Newcomb, the Old Salty’s owner.
The Department of Homeland Security says decisions on increasing the program’s visas are made after balancing the needs of businesses with any impact on U.S. workers. Businesses must establish not only that they can’t get enough U.S. workers, but that employing foreign laborers won’t lower the wages and working conditions of domestic help.
This year, the plants said they got enough visas but remain concerned because they believe the program has gotten caught up in the administration’s efforts to tighten immigration policies.
The department recently said it plans to switch in future years to a random selection process — essentially a lottery system— that some fear could again leave the plants without enough workers.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” said Bill Seiling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. "It’s always been a program that has been hanging on by a thin thread. It’s not just the Trump administration.”
‘I hope my kids understand’
When they’re not working or sleeping, the workers watch Spanish-language soap operas in the houses they share or play on their phones.
Often, they talk to their children in Mexico on video apps that don’t always function because of poor cell signals or lackluster Wi-Fi.
“For the most part we really don’t have any time,” said Garcia, the Lindy’s worker who first entered the program at a Virginia plant 29 years ago.
“We’re always working. We even work Saturdays. The only day we take off is Sunday when they take us out to buy groceries," she said. "If I have the opportunity, I go to Mass on Sundays.”
Staying busy is a salve of sorts because it blocks out the yearning to be back with their families. It is for them that Garcia, Vazquez and the others endure the separation year after year, earning money that in a rural Mexican village might pay for food all winter or finance such luxuries as an indoor bathroom. Garcia, who lives in a small city, said she has used the income to pay for her three daughters’ education.
“I hope my kids understand one day why I do this,” Vazquez said, “and why I have to be away.”