Maryland crab industry loses nearly half of workforce in visa lottery

Maryland crab industry loses nearly half of workforce in visa lottery
The crab industry in Maryland is facing a severe labor shortage as the Trump administration tightens its controls on temporary worker visas.
 
With crab season looming, nearly half of the Eastern Shore's crab houses couldn't secure visas for their workforce, made up mostly of Mexican seasonal laborers, according to a report in The Baltimore Sun.
 
“This is going to cause the price of crab meat to go out of sight,” Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hooper’s Island told the Sun. “There’s not going to be hardly any Maryland crab meat."
 
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Like many seasonal industries from ski resorts to clam digging, Maryland's crab industry is dependent on the H2-B temporary worker visa for labor.
 
The Trump administration changed the way that visa is doled out this year, from a first-come, first-serve basis to a lottery system.
 
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency in charge of vetting visa applications, grants 66,000 H2-B visas per year, split half and half by semester.
 
For the second half of fiscal 2018, USCIS received 88,000 initial applications that were weeded down to 47,000 for the 33,000 slots available, prompting officials to assign the visas by lottery.
 
The crab industry depends on workers ready to pick meat as soon as the weather turns warm and crabs come out of their burrows.
 
The 33,000 second-half fiscal 2018 visas, which allowed workers to begin working in April, ran out on February 23, according to USCIS.
 
And the lottery system left some crab companies without laborers, while a few others are fully staffed, according to the Sun.
 
“Companies that have been relying on this system for 25 years suddenly have no workers,” Bill Seiling, director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, told the Sun. “It’s totally unfair and irrational, really.”
 
In March, Congress extended the H2-B cap in the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill by allowing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), USCIS's parent agency, to increase the number of seasonal workers as needed, but "not more than the highest number of H-2B nonimmigrants who participated in the H-2B returning worker program in any fiscal year in which returning workers were exempt from such numerical limitation."
 
That could mean up to 100,000 total H2-B visas could be granted in 2018.
 
In 2017, White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, then the DHS secretary, used a similar exemption to grant 15,000 extra H2-B visas.
 
But Trump administration officials have been reluctant to amplify the temporary worker program this year. 
 
 
In a tense exchange with Rep. Bill KeatingWilliam (Bill) Richard KeatingMaryland crab industry loses nearly half of workforce in visa lottery Congress thinks big to tackle a defining crisis of our times Dems dominate GOP in cash race for key seats MORE (D-Mass.), Nielsen said the expansion was ready to be enacted, but alluded to increased fraud as a reason for the delay.
 
"The [regulation] is done," said Nielsen.
 
"The [regulation] actually was a result of talking to many members who have a concern in their district. And the concern was that the visas were being given to those who are not seasonal workers. We unfortunately have seen an increase in fraud," she said.
 
"Excuse me," interrupted Keating. "But that's an enforcement issue. So the answer to better enforcement is not to scuttle the program, not to make it ineffective."
 
For Maryland's crab industry, however, a delay could severely alter the marketplace.
 
While it's unclear exactly how the diminished workforce could impact the industry, a lack of crab meat pickers during prime crabbing season could raise Maryland crab meat prices, boosting domestic competitors from the Carolinas and Louisiana, and foreign competitors like Venezuela and Asia, according to the Sun.
 
That will also create a glut of steamed crabs, as crabs that are usually destined for meat production are cooked whole.
 
“We need these processing plants to keep the market running smooth,” Bryan Hall, of G.W. Hall and Sons on Hooper’s Island, told the Sun.