As crab season approaches, Shore businesses left in limbo

Visa shortage prevents Mexican workers' entry

April 02, 2005|By Chris Guy and Rona Kobell | Chris Guy and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

HOOPER'S ISLAND - In the seasonal rhythm of life on this slice of land dangling alongside the Chesapeake Bay, the first days of the commercial crab season are marked by anticipation.

No one will be catching any crabs until temperatures rise a bit, but the crab pots are ready - repaired, painted and neatly stacked. The decks of low-slung work boats are scrubbed. Diesel engines are fine-tuned. At the crab processing houses, industrial-sized crab steamers and stainless steel picking tables are gleaming.

But this year, despite all of the preparation, there is worry that the island's seafood industry is facing economic disaster. Hundreds of workers from Mexico would normally be on their way to jobs here and across Maryland's Eastern Shore to pry fluffy white meat from the crabs and pack it for shipping to markets near and far. The workers are still in Mexico, however, because they cannot get visas from the U.S. government.

Unless Congress passes emergency legislation to let the workers in, industry officials say, most of the Shore's processing houses will be forced to shut down - a move that would cut off much of the market for local watermen and hurt the economies of small bay communities.

"It's a rough business if you're not sure if you'll even be in business," said Robin Hall, 52, whose family runs a processing plant here. "There's just so many decisions we can't make right now. Normally, we'd be ordering about $15,000 worth of crab meat cans, but we aren't sure. And it has a domino effect right through little towns like this one."

Watermen such as Curtis Phillips and Carl Shockley Jr. are wondering whether it makes sense to start dropping crab pots into the bay, not knowing whether processors will have pickers to handle their catch. Outfitting their boats for the season costs $3,000 to $5,000.

"Desperate is the right word for us now," said Phillips, 48. "We can get by for a while, but we're so intertwined I think it's likely the whole industry could collapse. We cuss and fuss with the processors about prices, but the truth is you can't survive without a picking house."

To enter the United States, the Mexican workers need a temporary visa from a program known for its citation in the law, H2B. But hundreds of workers who have jobs waiting in Maryland's seafood industry can't get visas this year. Businesses in other parts of the country used up the nation's quota of 66,000 workers before the plants here were able to apply. Only four of 25 Maryland processors that sought such workers are getting them.

The H2B program is not universally popular - critics say cheap foreign labor keeps American wages low - and legislation to address the pending crisis was stalled in Congress when it broke for Easter recess. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is pushing a bill that would let foreign workers who held jobs in the past return this year and next, giving Congress time to craft a more comprehensive immigration bill.

Mikulski said she plans a new approach when Congress returns Monday. She hopes to attach her proposal to a supplemental budget bill for Iraq, scheduled to be the first measure taken up. The legislation would need House and Senate approval as well as President Bush's signature.

Seafood businesses from Alaska to Louisiana are in the same boat as Maryland - unable to get workers and unsure whether they will open. The H2B woes could ripple out to restaurants, importers, drivers, fish farmers, even the marinas that pump gas into the skiffs.

In waterfront communities such as Hooper's Island, watermen sell crabs to processors, wholesalers, restaurants and other customers during the early months of the season. But in the fall, when Maryland crabs are most plentiful, they count on selling most of their catch to processors who steam and pick the meat for canning to supply customers over the winter.

John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, calls the seafood processors the linchpin in a chain of crucial links bringing seafood from the water to the table.

"This isn't a problem for just a few processors on the Eastern Shore," he said. "Ultimately, it will be a problem for the consumer, who won't be able to buy good Maryland crab."

Since the H2B program began in 1990, Maryland's plants have relied on Mexicans to fill the picking jobs that they say American workers aren't willing to take. On Hooper's, residents say the last local crab picker, a native islander named Violet Travers, died this year at 83.

Pat Simmons runs a crab plant with her husband, a waterman who catches most of the crabs they steam and can. They are among the lucky few whose request for the Mexican workers was granted. Twelve workers are scheduled to cross the border by April 15, then travel by bus for three days to Hooper's Island.

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