KENT NARROWS - Buoyed by a victory in the U.S. Senate this week, Maryland'sseafood processors turned their attention yesterday to winning House ofRepresentatives approval for a visa program they say is crucial to thesurvival of the Chesapeake Bay's signature industry.
More than two dozen operators of crab-picking houses from throughout theEastern Shore met here with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who got legislationthrough the Senate on Tuesday that would allow foreign workers who have heldcrab-picking and other seasonal jobs to return to their temporary positions.
The processors planned strategy for lobbying House lawmakers so the workers- most of them from Mexico - can enter the U.S. as early as next month to workduring the crab season, then return to their homes.
"We convinced the Senate to see it our way, so now we just have to keep itmoving," said Jay Newcomb, who runs Phillips Seafood on Hoopers Island.
Mikulski generated bipartisan support to get the measure through theSenate, 94-6, as an amendment to key supplemental spending bill that containsmoney for, among other programs, the Iraq war and tsunami victims in EastAsia. She said yesterday that a conference committee could begin meeting assoon as next week to work out differences in the spending bill.
"I'm here with my seafood processors and my watermen to declare a victory,"Mikulski said. "I believe we can pass this bill and the president will signit. We believe we have nationwide support."
For the first time since the seasonal visa program began in 1990, most ofthe Shore's seafood processors were not able to get visas this year forworkers they have come to depend upon to pick crab meat harvested by Marylandwatermen. Only four of 25 crab picking houses received their allotment ofvisas this year.
The visa program, known as H2B, has allowed 66,000 foreign workers in thecountry each year to hold temporary jobs. But industries in other states areusing so many workers that the limit was reached before East Coast seafoodprocessors - as well as landscapers, logging companies and the tourismindustry - could apply.
Mikulski's amendment would allow workers who have worked in the H2B programto return to the temporary, non-agricultural jobs this year and next. The ideais to give Congress time to work out comprehensive immigration reform. Themeasure would also tighten anti-fraud rules and divide the 66,000 visasequally among Western and East Coast states.
Seafood industry leaders said they are optimistic that the amendment willmove quickly in the conference committee, fast enough for workers to beginarriving from Mexico as soon as the middle of next month. Mikulski will be onthe conference committee. She said lawmakers from Maryland, including Rep.Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, and from other statesaffected by the visa limits will lead the effort to line up support in theHouse.
"It's not done yet," said Cambridge processor Jack Brooks. "People told usit takes six or seven years to get something like this through Congress.Mikulski has helped us take a huge step. We're optimistic that it could be amatter of a few weeks now for workers to start getting here."
Opponents in the House are wary of any bill allowing temporary seasonalworkers. Others fear the measure would allow them to take jobs from Americans.
"There is an urgent need for immigration reform," Mikulski said. "Ourborders are porous, but this H2B visa was one of the few programs thatworked."
So far, the lack of workers for the traditional start of the crab season,which is April 1, has not made much difference in Maryland because low watertemperatures have kept crabs from becoming active. Once summer weather settlesin, however, watermen and the processors to whom they sell say they will beidled without the temporary workers to pick and pack the crabs.
Virgil "Sonny" Ruark, who is a fourth-generation processor, said he hasreceived several phone calls from workers in Mexico who have returned foryears to jobs in his Hoopers Island picking house.
"I've told them things are looking good, and that we hope to get them backhere once everything gets approved," Ruark said. "It would be nice to knowthey're only a phone call away."