Senate to vote on Mikulski plan to extend worker visa program


April 04, 2006|By GWYNETH K. SHAW

WASHINGTON -- The Senate could vote as early as today on a proposal from Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to extend for three years a policy expanding a visa program for seasonal foreign workers that has become a critical source of labor for seafood processors in the state.

Mikulski, a Democrat, offered her proposal as an amendment to the immigration reform bill under consideration in the Senate. Last year, Congress agreed to allow seasonal workers who had already come to the United States through the visa program, known as H2B, to return for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, even if the annual cap of 66,000 workers had already been reached.

Mikulski's amendment - supported by a number of lawmakers from coastal states, including both Virginia senators and Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes - would extend the expanded program through the 2009 season.

The cap had become a problem because, in recent years, it has been reached earlier and earlier as winter seasonal workers use up all the slots. Last spring, Maryland seafood packers accustomed to hiring workers from Latin America were faced with a shortage of workers until Congress stepped in.

Visas for those workers for this year's crab season, which begins in April, are already lined up, and the overall immigration bill contains provisions dealing with temporary workers. But Mikulski said yesterday that the extension is "a safety net" in case there is a lag in getting the new rules up and running.

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