US fishing industry breathes sigh of relief as H-2B visa program expanded

Published on
July 24, 2017

An announcement made last week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to expand a guest worker program was met with a mix of cheers and frustration by seafood industry representatives and elected officials from key states in the trade.

DHS Secretary John Kelly said he agreed to expand the H-2B visa program through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September. The visa program, designed for temporary workers coming to the country to fill nonagricultural jobs, helps employers fill jobs they say would otherwise sit vacant.

Congress established a cap of 66,000 such workers this year, with 33,000 visas available during both halves of the year. However, in May, lawmakers gave Kelly the authority to consider a one-time extension in the program. Over the last couple of months, DHS officials worked with the U.S. Department of Labor to establish guidelines regarding the expansion.

In past years, the seafood industry benefitted greatly from the visa program. According to data from the Center for Immigration Studies, Alaska-based Silver Bay Seafoods employed 971 H-2B workers – more than any other employer in the country last year. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc., received approval for nearly 400 H-2B workers at its Alaska operation, while in North Carolina, Capt. Charlie’s Seafood employed 200. 

In a statement, Kelly said issuing 15,000 additional visas demonstrates the Trump Administration’s commitment to U.S. businesses that are at risk because “a lack of available seasonal workers.”

However, some fear the expansion may have come too late. Officials in Texas celebrated the start of the shrimp boating season last week, but media reports indicated many vessels remained docked due to a lack of workers.

“I guess better late than never,” the Texas Shrimp Association posted on its Facebook page last Monday. “However the process still takes 3-4 weeks – ugh.” 

Shrimp boats can stay in the Gulf of Mexico for two months or longer.

U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, both of whom represent Maine, issued a joint statement critical of the timing of the announcement. Still, while they had hoped it would have come sooner, the announcement gives businesses an opportunity to hire the workers the need to stay running through the summer. 

“We urge the Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security to expedite the processing of applications to ensure that Maine businesses are not further harmed by additional delays,” the senators said. “Every day that passes without these workers threatens Maine businesses and our state’s economy.”

King, an independent, has filed a bill with Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, that would exempt workers previously approved for H-2B visas from counting against the cap in future years. King said the lack of such an exemption caused a hardship for many businesses this year.

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