Legislative sense

April 26, 2005

THE U.S. SENATE'S passage last week of a measure that will temporarily expand a visa program for foreign seasonal workers was an important step toward solving a problem that threatened Maryland's seafood processing industry, and a good example of sensible bipartisanship that distinguishes the forest from the trees.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat, would allow workers who participated in the program in the past to return to work here this year and next, effectively exempting them from a 66,000-visa limit reached in January that left Eastern Shore crab and oyster processing plants without workers.

The proposal has the support of U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and who has sponsored a similar proposal in the House.

Senator Mikulski's proposal was attached to a defense spending bill and could have easily gotten caught up in the highly politicized morass of seemingly endless Congressional debates over immigration. Indeed, two other controversial immigration-related measures attached to the bill failed, but the usual arguments against temporary worker visas didn't hold up in this case.

Opponents of the visas say employers use them to displace American workers for foreigners who will work for significantly less. Opponents also consider such programs back-door entryways to illegal or permanent immigration. Processing plant owners, with Senator Mikulski's help, were able to wage an effective campaign highlighting their aggressive efforts to recruit American workers, their refusal to hire illegal immigrants in the United States and their record of using the same workers annually who willingly return home without incident.

The business owners also stressed the negative impact the worker shortage would have on the state's $25 million crab processing industry and on related businesses.

Opposition to such visa programs is misguided. Employers are required to prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that they made serious attempts to fill jobs domestically, and that they will pay foreign workers a prevailing wage. They are also required to cover the costs of returning fired workers home and report those who don't show up for work.

Congressional lawmakers debating the merits of President Bush's guest worker proposal might want to use Senator Mikulski's efforts as an example of how to mesh American labor needs with foreign workers - without encouraging illegal immigration. In the meantime, we urge House members to support the visa expansion measure.

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