Commerce chief firm on visa cap

Exemption for guest workers is linked to broader reform

October 06, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Tyeesha Dixon and Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporters

A recently expired H-2B visa exemption that Maryland crab processors and other businesses relied on to hire foreign seasonal workers should be addressed as part of "comprehensive immigration reform," not renewed on its own, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said yester- day.

Businesses hire workers with H-2B visas for jobs that last only part of the year, such as picking meat from crabs or mowing grass.

But the federal government caps the number of visas it will issue, and local landscapers and seafood processors say they won't be permitted to apply for workers until their seasons have already started.

The exemption allowed businesses to bypass the cap by hiring workers who had received the visas in the past. It expired at the end of last month.

Gutierrez, visiting the Port of Baltimore yesterday to talk about trade agreements, said in response to questions that immigration issues -- including guest-worker programs -- should not be dealt with piecemeal. Congress tried and failed to overhaul immigration laws earlier this year. "Everyone has a specific issue that they'd like to have addressed," he said. "That's why we need a comprehensive solution. We're not going to get away from that reality."

But that message didn't please business owners who rely on workers who use the visas.

In an interview, Jack Brooks, president of Eastern Shore crab picking house J.M. Clayton Co., said he'll go out of business next year if he can't once again get the foreign workers who come for the season and return home afterward. Watermen who sell crabs to him and others in the supply chain will be hurt as well, he said. He thinks comprehensive immigration reform will come too late for him.

"It's not going to happen in time," said Brooks, who employs 120 during the picking season, about 75 of whom come on H-2B visas.

Landscapers held a news conference in Glen Burnie yesterday to lobby for a bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, that would permanently renew the federal exemption for returning workers.

"If this bill doesn't go through, then we'll all be out of business," said Chuck Saine, president of C.S. Lawn & Landscape Inc. in Davidsonville.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Democratic senator said she would continue pushing for the change.

"Senator Mikulski wanted to see us move comprehensive immigration reform as well -- which is why Democrats tried twice this year but were blocked by Senate Republicans," said Melissa Schwartz, the spokeswoman, in response to Gutierrez's comments.

James J. Flippo Jr., president of Lasting Impressions Landscape Contractors in Bowie, thinks H-2B visas shouldn't be lumped in with immigration reform. He says the employees are not immigrants and compares them to students who study abroad.

"It makes no sense to damage service industries in the United States while they debate that issue," said Flippo, who employs 165, more than 70 of whom are seasonal workers who come from other countries on the temporary visas. "If it's not resolved by Thanksgiving, there's some grass that's not going to get cut."

The federal government has allocated half the 66,000 visas and will not take applications for the rest until April. Landscapers and seafood processing plants trying to recruit for next spring couldn't put their names in the hat for the first 33,000 visas because the rules say they must wait until four months before they need the workers.

The expired exemption was first put into place in 2005, when Mikulski worked it into an Iraq war-spending bill because she could not win support for a higher cap on H-2B visas.

Some say the exemption ought to remain expired -- or guest-worker programs stopped entirely. The Southern Poverty Law Center says it is suing some companies for failing to pay promised wages and mistreating workers in other ways. A report on guest-worker programs, titled "Close to Slavery," was issued by the center in March.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington group that advocates for less immigration, argues that the program puts foreign residents in jobs that Americans would otherwise take, despite companies' claims that they can't find local workers to do the work.

"In areas in which the immigration authorities have recently cracked down on employers hiring illegal aliens, which of course is not exactly the same thing, Americans have been lining up to take those jobs," said Jack Martin, the federation's special projects director.

Local businesses say they treat workers fairly and would hire Americans if they could. Flippo said he spends thousands of dollars advertising for seasonal jobs, but only one American responded last year, and he hired the man. This year, he said, no one responded. Harry Phillips, who owns Russell Hall Seafood in Dorchester County, said the crab plant closed in 1986 "due to the lack of crab pickers." He bought it in 1992, shortly after migrant workers were allowed to come on H-2B visas.

"They brought a lot of life back to this part of the county," said Phillips, who employs about 40 during the season, 30 of whom -- all the crab pickers -- he recruits under H-2B program. "We have American people in the offices, we hire a lot of American people, but we can't find American people to pick crabs." jamie.smith.hopkins

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