WASHINGTON - The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to temporarily expand a visa program for seasonal workers from other countries - legislation that, if it becomes law, could salvage a season some Maryland seafood packers thought lost.
After almost a week of pressure from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and a host of other lawmakers, the Senate voted 94-6 to approve the measure as part of a spending bill to send more money to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate is expected to approve the bill by the end of the week and then must negotiate a final version with the House. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and others said yesterday that the strong support for the amendment should give them leverage in those talks.
"I've always been optimistic, but the size of the vote was very heartening," Mikulski said. "It shows that when we go to conference, they really have to accept this amendment."
Mikulski pushed for the legislation to help Eastern Shore seafood packers, who have come to rely on foreign workers - many from Mexico - who enter this country, work for a few months and then return home.
Along the Eastern Seaboard, they pick crabs, shuck oysters, shell lobsters and work in restaurants and hotels. In western states and other parts of the country, they are crucial to landscaping businesses and the tourism industry.
Slots fill up fast
The visa program, known as H2B, has allowed 66,000 workers to come into the United States each year since 1990.
But in the past several years, the cap has been reached earlier, as workers coming in for winter jobs fill up the slots. Last year, the ceiling was reached in March. This year, the program hit its limit in January - before Maryland businesses were even allowed to apply.
Mikulski introduced a stand-alone bill in February to allow workers who have participated in the program in one of the past three years to come back this year and next.
Her legislation also calls for new anti-fraud rules and would split the allocation of 66,000 workers in half, ensuring that some visas would be available for summer workers.
When immigration proposals became part of the debate over the $80.7 billion military spending bill, she saw an opening - and senators from coastal states, including Republican Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, joined her.
Senate leaders tried to stop immigration-related amendments from being attached to the bill - two other proposals failed earlier yesterday.
But with help from lawmakers representing states with similar problems, Mikulski was able to force a vote on her proposal and win.
She said the vote validated her effort to get the legislation through quickly.
"It shows the depth of the problem - the fact that there are people all over the country who need these visas," she said.
About 15 seafood processors spent the day yesterday on Capitol Hill, visiting senators they hoped could be persuaded to go along with the Mikulski amendment.
"I think it made a real difference, going to see people face-to-face," said Robin Hall, who runs G.W. Hall Seafood on Hoopers Island. "We were looking to squeak by with 60 votes, but we did even better than we had hoped.
"When you can look people in the eye, they're going to at least understand your problem."
Bill Seiling, who heads the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said processors were elated at the win and hope that their momentum will carry over to House members when negotiations begin with the Senate.
Mikulski expects to be named to the conference committee that will hammer out the final version of the bill.
"I don't know all the legislative part of this, but obviously, all our hard work paid off," said Ricky Fitzhugh, who runs Terrapin Fish Co. on Hoopers.
Already, industry leaders are planning a meeting Friday on Kent Island to plot strategy for lobbying House members.
"With the Senate vote this much in our favor, we think it would be difficult for the House to deny us," Seiling said. "It's important to keep up the pressure, though. We've taken a very big first step, but we don't want to drop the ball now."
Bill in the House
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, sponsored a similar bill in the House and has said he supports putting the visa legislation on the spending bill.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine, is one of those who joined Mikulski's fight. Collins said she supported attaching the visa amendment to the military spending bill because there is an urgent need to resolve the problem before the summer tourist season hits its stride.
Collins said she has heard from countless restaurants and hotel owners in her home state, asking for assistance.
"They really fear that they won't be able to meet the demand in their peak seasons without this help," she said.
Collins, Mikulski and others emphasized a key requirement of the program: that employers prove they tried to find Americans willing to do the job before applying to bring in foreign workers.