WASHINGTON - A vote could come as early as today on an amendment offered by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to temporarily expand the number of workers allowed to come to the United States and take seasonal jobs picking crabs, shucking oysters or mowing lawns. Without help from Congress, businesses that hire these workers could find themselves drastically short of people.
"This is one of the few immigration programs that have really worked to keep companies in business and yet control our borders," the Maryland Democrat said yesterday. The proposal would help more than two dozen businesses in the state.
"Our seafood people start hiring in April, as do our landscapers, and if they don't have it by May, they're talking about not even being able to open their doors."
The amendment is being proposed as part of a bill sending more money to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republican leaders in the Senate have been emphatic that they don't want to add any immigration provisions to that $80.7 billion measure. The fight over Mikulski's amendment and several others has held up passage of the larger bill in the Senate, which has already passed in the House.
But Mikulski, leveraging support for the bill from several Republican senators, insisted on bringing her amendment to a vote. Using complex Senate rules, she can stop debate and force a vote if 59 other senators support her. She is optimistic.
"All the coastal senators face the same issues, whether it's lobsters or crabs," Mikulski said. "This is the time of year we have to go for it."
Similar wrangling has taken place over several other immigration-related amendments, and two of them will be voted on this morning, potentially delaying the vote on Mikulski's amendment to tomorrow.
Since 1990, the visa program known as H2B has allowed foreign workers to come into the United States legally, work for several months and then go home. The program allows 66,000 workers each year for non-agricultural jobs and has been critical for seafood processors in Maryland, who have struggled to find enough people.
Over the past several years, the 66,000-worker cap has been reached earlier, as landscaping firms in Florida and ski resorts across the country use up more of the available slots. Last year, the program reached its limit in March. This year, the ceiling was reached in January - before most Maryland businesses were allowed to apply.
Only four of the 25 Maryland companies that applied for foreign workers are likely to get them without congressional intervention.
Mikulski introduced a stand-alone bill in February to allow foreign workers who have held jobs through the visa program for the past three years to come back this year and next.
Last week, Mikulski took to the Senate floor to fight for the legislation, flanked by fellow Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. Senators from other states that depend on seasonal workers - including Massachusetts, Maine, Virginia and Wyoming - rose to support her fight.
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, read from letters sent to his office by seafood packers in his state, saying they can't survive without the workers using the visa program.
"They don't beg for anything," Warner said. "They just want to have an opportunity to remain in existence."
Mikulski expects to be one of the senators negotiating the final spending measure with House members. House leaders have expressed opposition to some of the Senate's immigration proposals, leaving the ultimate fate of the visa amendment uncertain.
"It's not necessarily the best vehicle. But since this is a pretty urgent situation, I'll fully support it," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and sponsored a similar bill.
Mikulski would not offer a prediction on what might happen in final negotiations.
"One step at a time," she said. "Let's get this done and then we'll go on to conference."