Md. seafood processors hope for Senate relief

Mikulski amendment would ease labor crisis

April 14, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Maryland seafood processors and other seasonal businesses hoping for federal intervention to forestall a summer labor crisis are going to have to wait a little longer after legislation offering relief failed to come up for a vote yesterday in the U.S. Senate.

The bill, which Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski introduced as an amendment to the supplemental spending bill for the war in Iraq, would let seasonal nonagricultural workers from other countries return to jobs in the United States, despite a ceiling on their numbers imposed under the visa program known as H2B.

The program - which since 1990 has allowed 66,000 into the United States each year - has been a lifeline for the Eastern Shore's seafood industry, which has been besieged by cheap imports and struggles to compete for workers with better-paying industries.

As the law stands, businesses can apply 120 days before they need the workers, giving an advantage to industries that need workers in the winter. This year, the limit was reached in January - before many Maryland seafood businesses were allowed to apply.

Mikulski spoke from the Senate floor on the need for her Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, which would exempt returning H2B workers from the limit for two years, effective immediately, so small businesses can survive while Congress crafts a larger immigration reform proposal.

"I wish to acknowledge the need for comprehensive immigration reform, but right now, our small and seasonal businesses are in crisis," Mikulski said. "It is a quick and simple legislative remedy that will keep the doors of American companies open."

The bill would also create reporting requirements so the Department of Homeland Security could keep better records on the workers. Another key provision seeks to equalize competition by giving half of the visas to states needing workers in the winter and the rest to those needing workers in the summer.

Twenty-five Maryland seafood processors applied for the foreign workers, but only four are likely to get them unless Congress intervenes. Some members of Congress have been trying since last year to expand the limit but have run into hurdles because many legislators see the issue as part of a larger immigration question.

The Senate went home for the night without voting on Mikulski's amendment, although it is expected to be considered again today. If the effort fails, Mikulski said she plans to continue pushing it as a separate bill or as part of another package.

Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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