Adjustments in H2B Program to Benefit Maryland’s Seafood Industry

Perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule, but it’s good to see that bipartisan cooperation is still possible on Capitol Hill: according to public radio station WAMU in Washington, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, teamed up with GOP Congressman Andy Harris on a small immigration fix, designed to boost Maryland’s troubled seafood industry. Senator Mikulski chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Harris is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations.

WAMU reports that both Mikulski and Harris supported language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 “that would allow the seafood industry to stagger its seasonal foreign workers that come to the country on H2B work visas.”  [See Congressional Spending Bill Could Help Maryland’s Struggling Seafood Industry, by Bryan Russo, WAMU Radio, 20.Jan.2014.]   President Obama signed the measure into law on January 17th.

To understand what brought together this political odd couple, a bit of background is in order. Here on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, the blue crab has almost mythic status: it’s not just Maryland’s culinary claim to fame, it’s also a symbol of the state’s proud seafaring heritage. And it happens to be a significant contributor to Maryland’s $600 million seafood industry, which hauls in millions of pounds of blue crabs, striped bass, oysters, and other popular fish and crustaceans, each year. [See Maryland at a Glance: Seafood Production, Maryland Manual Online.

Someone has to process all of that seafood before it can go to market: fish have to be filleted, oysters shucked, and crab meat picked from the shell, and a significant share of that work is done – in Maryland, and elsewhere in the American seafood industry – by foreign H2B workers. The H2B program allows U.S. companies to bring in foreign temporary workers to do nonagricultural jobs when they can’t find enough U.S. workers to meet their needs. Like other nonimmigrant programs, H2B visas are subject to an annual cap. [See H2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers, USCIS WebSite.]

Without the provision for staggered entry of H2B workers, Senator Mikulski said in a press release, “Maryland seafood businesses would be required to bring in all H2B workers at the same time, creating costly burdens on these small businesses.” [See Mikulski Announces Consolidated Appropriations Act Would Support Maryland’s Seafood Industry, Office of Senator Barbara Mikulski, 14.Jan.2014.] According to Senator Mikulski, the H2B measure will preserve jobs, because two American jobs are created for every H2B visa granted. In the process, the measure should help to make Maryland’s fisheries more economically sustainable.

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