KENT NARROWS - Buoyed by a victory in the U.S. Senate this week, Maryland's seafood processors turned their attention yesterday to winning House of Representatives approval for a visa program they say is crucial to the survival of the Chesapeake Bay's signature industry.
More than two dozen operators of crab-picking houses from throughout the
Eastern Shore met here with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who got legislation
through the Senate on Tuesday that would allow foreign workers who have held
crab-picking and other seasonal jobs to return to their temporary positions.
Mexico - can enter the U.S. as early as next month to work
during the crab season, then return to their homes.
"We convinced the Senate to see it our way, so now we just have to keep it
moving," said Jay Newcomb, who runs Phillips Seafood on Hoopers Island.
Mikulski generated bipartisan support to get the measure through the
Senate, 94-6, as an amendment to key supplemental spending bill that contains
money for, among other programs, the Iraq war and tsunami victims in East
Asia. She said yesterday that a conference committee could begin meeting as
soon 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 sign
it. We believe we have nationwide support."
For the first time since the seasonal visa program began in 1990, most of
the Shore's seafood processors were not able to get visas this year for
workers they have come to depend upon to pick crab meat harvested by Maryland
watermen. Only four of 25 crab picking houses received their allotment of
visas this year.
The visa program, known as H2B, has allowed 66,000 foreign workers in the
country each year to hold temporary jobs. But industries in other states are
using so many workers that the limit was reached before East Coast seafood
processors - as well as landscapers, logging companies and the tourism
industry - could apply.
Mikulski's amendment would allow workers who have worked in the H2B program
to return to the temporary, non-agricultural jobs this year and next. The idea
is to give Congress time to work out comprehensive immigration reform. The
measure would also tighten anti-fraud rules and divide the 66,000 visas
equally among Western and East Coast states.
Seafood industry leaders said they are optimistic that the amendment will
move quickly in the conference committee, fast enough for workers to begin
arriving from Mexico as soon as the middle of next month. Mikulski will be on
the conference committee. She said lawmakers from Maryland, including Rep.
Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, and from other states
affected by the visa limits will lead the effort to line up support in the
"It's not done yet," said Cambridge processor Jack Brooks. "People told us
it 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 a
matter of a few weeks now for workers to start getting here."
Opponents in the House are wary of any bill allowing temporary seasonal
workers. Others fear the measure would allow them to take jobs from Americans.
"There is an urgent need for immigration reform," Mikulski said. "Our
borders are porous, but this H2B visa was one of the few programs that
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 water
temperatures have kept crabs from becoming active. Once summer weather settles
in, however, watermen and the processors to whom they sell say they will be
idled without the temporary workers to pick and pack the crabs.
Virgil "Sonny" Ruark, who is a fourth-generation processor, said he has
received several phone calls from workers in Mexico who have returned for
years to jobs in his Hoopers Island picking house.
"I've told them things are looking good, and that we hope to get them back
here once everything gets approved," Ruark said. "It would be nice to know
they're only a phone call away."