Cross-border crab cakes Immigrants: The state's seafood-processing industry says it couldn't get by without Mexican labor.

September 24, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

FISHING CREEK -- There's a new ingredient in the Maryland crab cake: Mexican labor.

Take a look around seafood packer Jay Newcomb's picking house, and you'll see the new face of his industry: Around one table piled high with steamed crabs work three older Americans; a second table is empty, and at five others, 21 young Mexican women strip white meat from shells.

The story is the same at all but the smallest of the dozen seafood-processing plants here on Hoopers Island in Dorchester County: Were it not for Mexican labor, the crabs wouldn't get picked, and Maryland would have to look elsewhere for the makings of its beloved crab cakes.

Unlike Eastern Shore businesses raided recently by federal immigration agents, the picking houses bear the U.S. government seal of approval. The crab- meat packers legally import seasonal workers under a federal program for industries that can't attract enough American workers.

"American people won't walk across the street to do this work, but these girls will come across the country," said Newcomb, manager of A. E. Phillips & Son, the first on the island chain to import Mexican workers six years ago. "The demand for crab meat is great, but you have to get it out of the crab and into the can."

Local residents, apprehensive that an influx of immigrants might change the tenor of the island, were slow at first to accept the need for foreign labor. But despite the anti-immigrant backlash sweeping the nation this election year -- and Dorchester County's 9 percent unemployment rate -- the presence of about 130 Mexican workers on Hoopers Island now stirs little controversy.

"Any of those picking houses would rather hire people in the U.S. to keep the money in the U.S.," said Ben Parks, president of the Dorchester County Seafood Harvesters Association. "But I don't know how else to get the crabs picked."

Without Mexican labor, said packer W. T. Ruark, "I'd shut down tomorrow. We couldn't operate."

The Rev. Joel Johnson, an Anglican priest from Easton who says a weekly Spanish-language Mass on the island, called the program a "wonderful success. It's good for the town and good for the girls because they come from inordinately poor families in Mexico."

There is one sour note: 14 women have left one seafood processor this year, apparently to seek illegal work elsewhere on the Shore. While the great majority of Mexican workers in the program go home on schedule, a few always walk off -- tempted by what Johnson calls the "sweet talk" of Latino men who work in poultry plants and other Shore industries.

The crab-meat packers are angered that illegal immigrants apparently can easily find work in other businesses. The Hoopers Island picking houses go through a two-month process to bring in the Mexican workers -- including advertising the jobs to Americans and proving there is a labor shortage -- and pay a Texas labor contractor $100 per worker to recruit them in Mexico.

"We do all the work to get the girls here, and then people who hire illegals get the benefit of this," said Ronnie Jones, the owner of Three Anns Seafood, which lost the 14 workers. He said he had not lost workers in previous years.

"Some of the girls who left were making $50 to $60 a day. This has really hurt me," he said.

Benedict J. Ferro, district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he was "not seeing a pattern" of formerly legal crab pickers turning up in illegal work. But he pledged to investigate any incidents reported to INS.

Only a few seasonal businesses qualify for the visas used for the crab pickers. Nationally, crab pickers received more than 2,100 of the 15,000 temporary nonagricultural visas granted last year, more than any other category of foreign worker. The INS could not say how many went to Maryland.

The recent raids on two poultry processing plants and a huge nursery on the Shore turned up a complex mix of other Latin American immigrant labor, legal and otherwise: naturalized U.S. citizens; workers with permanent resident cards ("green cards"); political asylum applicants with temporary work permits; immigrants who came here legally but overstayed their visas; immigrants who crossed the border illegally and found work with fraudulent documents; and illegal immigrants who gave birth here to U.S. citizen children.

What they have in common is a willingness to work -- and employers' desire to hire them.

The Hoopers Island seafood packers consider their legally imported work force essential. Local crab pickers are literally dying off, they say, and young Americans aren't replacing them.

Why the kids won't come

Some reasons:

Crab-picking is messy, seasonal piecework (no benefits) that depends on the vicissitudes of the harvest. Packers say they can't raise wages without losing markets to Southern producers and imported Asian crab meat.

With its oyster industry moribund, Hoopers Island (pop. 591) is rapidly becoming a summer and retirement retreat with fewer young families.

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