President Donald Trump’s freezing of visas for temporary foreign workers will “further weaken” the national economy and deny tourism and other important Maryland industries the staff they need, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Tuesday.
The Republican president’s executive order says it is designed to halt an influx of guest workers “who present a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak.”
But Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said the order signed Monday is part of a series of immigration moves that “have harmed workers, families, and businesses and will further weaken our economy at this already difficult time. The president is cynically using the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic to double down on his anti-immigrant agenda.”
Biotech, tourism and crab processing are among the Maryland industries that typically employ temporary foreign help. For instance, nearly 11,000 workers came to Maryland last year under a work exchange program known as J-1 that is popular with overseas students, according to the State Department. Under the president’s order, it is suspended until the end of the year.
The state’s crab processing plants appear to be exempt from the visa freeze because they are considered an essential part of the food chain, Maryland lawmakers and plant owners said.
Nevertheless, most of the nine crab plants in Dorchester County were hampered already by a serious worker shortage because the Trump administration temporarily halted their H-2B guest worker visa program during the spring, citing economic-related concerns stemming from the pandemic.
As a result, the plants have less than half of the 450 workers, most from Mexico, who usually arrive for the busiest time of the year, said Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
“So, this problem is not taken care of,” Brooks said.
Ocean City businesses typically rely on the J-1 program, which matches seasonal workers with restaurants, hotels, stores, attractions and other businesses.
In the resort town, “it is unfortunate that the president’s executive order does affect the Summer Work Travel Program that normally supplies thousands of employees to our local businesses,” said Nancy Schwendeman, interim executive director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.
Ocean City officially lifted the public health restrictions on its beach and boardwalk in May, days before Republican Gov. Larry Hogan replaced a statewide stay-at-home order with a “Safer at Home” advisory.
Despite continued concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, Ocean City “is still seeing high numbers of travelers,” Schwendeman said. “There is not less demand for workers, there are just less workers.”
She said the chamber was planning a “virtual job fair” for Wednesday to try to link businesses with needed workers.
There have been 65,007 confirmed cases in Maryland of COVID-19 since the disease appeared in mid-March in the state. To date, 2,963 people have died in Maryland of the disease or complications from it.
In his executive order, Trump noted the nation’s soaring unemployment rate resulting from economic shutdowns to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“In the administration of our nation’s immigration system, we must remain mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in the current extraordinary environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor,” his order said.
In addition to the J-1 and H-2B programs, the visa freeze covers a number of other visas, including H-1B. Van Hollen’s office said the programs support Maryland’s biotech, technology and tourism industries.
The H-2B guest worker program has been a mainstay of the state’s crab industry for years.
As many as 500 crab pickers typically arrive in Maryland each spring, enduring months of cultural and geographic isolation in exchange for paychecks of hundreds of dollars a week to help support their families back home. Demand for the H-2B program is so high that members of Congress often complain there aren’t enough workers for industries such as seafood processing.
In April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that no additional H-2B visas were being released because of economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the crab industry got a small piece of good news when lawmakers said the plants would be exempt from the new freeze because they provide “services essential to the United States food supply chain.”
“I thank the Trump Administration for sparing seafood processors from this moratorium,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and a portion of Baltimore County. “These workers support countless American jobs and businesses in the First District.”
Harris declined to comment further. Inquiries to the White House were referred to an official in the Department of Homeland Security, who was not available.
Brooks, the trade association president, said demand for crab meat has been up — due largely to takeout restaurant business and markets — even as many restaurants are just opening up to hosting diners.
Brooks said he hopes the industry will continue to press its case that “we certainly are part of the food chain. Let’s have a permanent exemption. That’s what we’ve been striving for.”