September 30, 2007
Since 1990, the H2B program has allowed foreign workers into the country on a temporary visa that allows them to work in seasonal industries, such as landscaping, fisheries and hotels. For most of those years, the program worked smoothly -- workers were happy to come because they made far more than what they could earn at home, and employers were happy to have them as it became increasingly difficult to find American workers for the jobs.
But the program appeared to be heading for trouble in 2004, when the national cap of 66,000 workers was reached in March. Employers can't apply for the visas any earlier than 120 days before they need their workers. Most seafood processors -- who use the workers to pick the meat from steamed crabs, then put it in small plastic tubs -- got their workers that year, but several other industries that have later starts were shut out.
Then, in 2005, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which is now under the Department of Homeland Security, announced that the cap had been filled by January 4 -- so early that most of Maryland's seafood processors weren't even allowed to apply yet -- their season runs from about April to Thanksgiving.
The processors went to Capitol Hill, where they had found an ally in U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The Maryland Democrat pushed for an expansion to the H2B limits, but the issue kept getting mired in the larger national debate on immigration.
Undeterred, Mikulski led efforts to slip emergency legislation into an unrelated Iraq-spending bill so that workers who had held seasonal jobs in the U.S. in the past, such as most of the Shore's crab pickers, could return to those jobs in 2005 and 2006 regardless of the national cap. Last year, she again got language included in a defense bill to extend the provision one more year.
Now, there are some reasonable arguments against the program (follow that link to see the whole thing), but truthfully, I discount all the grousing by organized labor. Unions care about unions, that's all. The real bottom line is that if the program isn't extended again, several things will happen for sure, and I'm not even going to talk about the H2B workers themselves. First, the packing companies will go out of business, which includes their drivers, warehouse workers, and admin staff. This in turn will impact the local economies, and also affect their suppliers. The price of crab will skyrocket in the stores, which will likely reduce demand, meaning the watermen who depend on Blue Crab fishing will be hurt.
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