Crab pickers turn to House for seasonal-worker visas

Some fear bill would take jobs away from Americans

April 23, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

KENT NARROWS - Buoyed by a victory in the U.S. Senate this week, Maryland's seafood processors turned their attention yesterday to winning House of Representatives approval for a visa program they say is crucial to the survival of the Chesapeake Bay's signature industry.

More than two dozen operators of crab-picking houses from throughout the Eastern Shore met here with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who got legislation through the Senate on Tuesday that would allow foreign workers who have held crab-picking and other seasonal jobs to return to their temporary positions.

The processors planned strategy for lobbying House lawmakers so the workers - most of them from Mexico - can enter the U.S. as early as next month to work during the crab season, then return to their homes.

"We convinced the Senate to see it our way, so now we just have to keep it moving," said Jay Newcomb, who runs Phillips Seafood on Hoopers Island.

Mikulski generated bipartisan support to get the measure through the Senate, 94-6, as an amendment to key supplemental spending bill that contains money for, among other programs, the Iraq war and tsunami victims in East Asia. She said yesterday that a conference committee could begin meeting as soon as next week to work out differences in the spending bill.

"I'm here with my seafood processors and my watermen to declare a victory," Mikulski said. "I believe we can pass this bill and the president will sign it. We believe we have nationwide support."

For the first time since the seasonal visa program began in 1990, most of the Shore's seafood processors were not able to get visas this year for workers they have come to depend upon to pick crab meat harvested by Maryland watermen. Only four of 25 crab picking houses received their allotment of visas this year.

The visa program, known as H2B, has allowed 66,000 foreign workers in the country each year to hold temporary jobs. But industries in other states are using so many workers that the limit was reached before East Coast seafood processors - as well as landscapers, logging companies and the tourism industry - could apply.

Mikulski's amendment would allow workers who have worked in the H2B program to return to the temporary, non-agricultural jobs this year and next. The idea is to give Congress time to work out comprehensive immigration reform. The measure would also tighten anti-fraud rules and divide the 66,000 visas equally among Western and East Coast states.

Seafood industry leaders said they are optimistic that the amendment will move quickly in the conference committee, fast enough for workers to begin arriving from Mexico as soon as the middle of next month. Mikulski will be on the conference committee. She said lawmakers from Maryland, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, and from other states affected by the visa limits will lead the effort to line up support in the House.

"It's not done yet," said Cambridge processor Jack Brooks. "People told us it takes six or seven years to get something like this through Congress. Mikulski has helped us take a huge step. We're optimistic that it could be a matter of a few weeks now for workers to start getting here."

Opponents in the House are wary of any bill allowing temporary seasonal workers. Others fear the measure would allow them to take jobs from Americans.

"There is an urgent need for immigration reform," Mikulski said. "Our borders are porous, but this H2B visa was one of the few programs that worked."

So far, the lack of workers for the traditional start of the crab season, which is April 1, has not made much difference in Maryland because low water temperatures have kept crabs from becoming active. Once summer weather settles in, however, watermen and the processors to whom they sell say they will be idled without the temporary workers to pick and pack the crabs.

Virgil "Sonny" Ruark, who is a fourth-generation processor, said he has received several phone calls from workers in Mexico who have returned for years to jobs in his Hoopers Island picking house.

"I've told them things are looking good, and that we hope to get them back here once everything gets approved," Ruark said. "It would be nice to know they're only a phone call away."

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