Seasonal Seafood Businesses Casualty of Immigration Stalemate

Once upon a time, seafood processors and restaurants filled labor-intensive, seasonal jobs by posting a "help wanted" sign on the door or taking out an ad in the newspaper. Now it takes an act of Congress, but if Congress doesn't act quickly, many seasonal employers will be forced to cease operations this summer because the pool of H2B visas has dried up.

From Chesapeake crab picking houses to Alaska roe processing plants to Cape Cod clam shacks, many seafood businesses rely on H2B visas to hire foreign workers to fill the low-paying jobs that many Americans reject. However, H2B visas are in such high demand that the congressionally mandated cap was reached on Jan. 2 (the annual cap is set at 66,000 H2B visas, 33,000 in the first half of the fiscal year and 33,000 in the second half). Last year, the cap was met on March 16.

Graham & Rollins is one of many seafood businesses that applied for H2B visas but didn't make the cut. John Graham III, the company's VP, usually hires about 70 Mexican workers to pick crab at his Hampton, Va., facility. "I haven't rested peacefully since Jan. 2," he told The Virginian-Pilot on Jan. 25. "We will be closing if something is not done."

When petitioning for the visas, most seafood businesses didn't stand a chance. Many fisheries get under way in late spring or early summer, and employers can't apply for H2B visas until 120 days before the workers' start date.

There's still hope. In a Jan. 25. letter, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) urged President Bush to work with Congress to extend the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, which would exempt returning workers from counting against the annual cap. The act expired on Sept. 30, 2007, and Mikulski's attempts to renew it have come up short.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which refuses to accept any legislation short of comprehensive immigration reform, and labor unions are holding up the act, explains Muffy Grant, H2B program manager for the Center for Cultural Exchange in Chicago. "We hope to get an answer by April 1, and then we'd have to do it again by Sept. 30," she says. "But there's so much going on right now - an impending recession, a lackluster housing market. That's taking center stage. But I hope this Congress will make some sort of quick decision."

So do I. If Congress can't step up and allow seasonal employers to hire the foreign workers they need to stay in business, then it has no right griping about foreign competition.

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business


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