Senate's OK of visa bill brings relief

Md. crab-picking businesses, foreign workers would benefit from measure

October 18, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN REPORTER

Eastern Shore seafood businesses expressed relief yesterday that a bill to extend a visa program that has brought foreign workers here has cleared a major hurdle in Congress.

The Senate voted Tuesday night to extend the visa program, known as H2B, for one year. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, got the provision written into a spending bill.

The Senate measure must be reconciled with a House version in a conference committee. The final legislation would be sent to President Bush. No date has been set for the conference, and the president has threatened to veto the spending bill.

Because the visa legislation includes only a one-year extension, through Sept. 30, seasonal businesses in Maryland and elsewhere that depend on the workers might have to endure another nail-biting year of waiting for another extension.

Still, the owners of crab-packing houses on the Eastern Shore breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as word of the congressional action spread.

"If we didn't have those workers, we'd be out of business," said Jay Newcomb, manager of A.E. Phillips, a crab-picking house on Hoopers Island that has about two dozen employees from Mexico. "They're filling a job that we don't have anyone else to do."

The H2B program, which began in 1990, allows thousands of workers into the United States on temporary visas to take seasonal jobs that were hard to fill with U.S. workers, such as landscaping and crab picking.

The program quickly became popular with employers that depend on seasonal labor and with foreign workers. Workers from countries such as Mexico could earn far more in the United States. And employers in remote areas were happy to have a reliable work force that stayed for the April-to-November crab-picking season. The workers return home when the season is over.

The problem for Maryland businesses is that the program has a limit of 66,000 workers nationally, which often is filled by seasonal businesses in other parts of the country before the state's seafood companies are allowed to apply.

Mikulski's legislation allows workers to return to jobs they have held in previous years if the employer requests that they be given visas.

Some Republicans worry about reliance on foreign workers, union leaders say cheap foreign labor keeps U.S. wages low, and advocates worry that immigrant workers could be exploited because they could be forced to leave the country if they complain about job conditions.

"We have a long-standing opposition to guest-worker programs, because these are a means by which employers can underpay workers and provide them with substandard conditions," said Anna Avendano, director of the immigrant worker program at the AFL-CIO. "These programs are bad public policy, they're bad for American workers, and they're bad for foreign workers."

In the face of such opposition, Mikulski has had to settle for temporary measures. In 2005, she attached a provision to extend the program for two years to an Iraq spending bill. Last year, an extension of the program until September 2007 was included in a defense bill. She says she will continue to work for a permanent solution.

Don Mooers, an immigration lawyer who is counsel to the pro-H2B group Save Small Businesses, called what Mikulski achieved "nothing short of a miracle," given the gridlock between Congress and the president on many issues.

"One year is a reprieve," he said. "It's sort of the best that we can hope for at this point."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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