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Biden OKs more foreign seasonal workers, a boon for Md. crab industry

Eva Barrera Martinez, a guest migrant worker from Hidalgo, Mexico, picks crabs at a crab house in Fishing Creek, Maryland in 2020. The state’s seafood industry is engaged in what has been an annual appeal for more visas to bring in migrant workers. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Eva Barrera Martinez, a guest migrant worker from Hidalgo, Mexico, picks crabs at a crab house in Fishing Creek, Maryland in 2020. The state’s seafood industry is engaged in what has been an annual appeal for more visas to bring in migrant workers. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s administration announced an increase Tuesday in the number of temporary seasonal workers who will be allowed to work in the U.S. this year, a move likely to boost Maryland’s crab industry.

The Department of Homeland Security said the U.S. would approve an additional 22,000 H2-B seasonal worker visas on top of the annual limit of 66,000 set by Congress. It cited increased demand from employers, with the number of people seeking jobless benefits at the lowest point since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The H2-B visa program has bipartisan support in Congress and with businesses across the nation. It is used to fill jobs in such areas as landscaping, construction, hotels and restaurants as well as in seafood and meat processing plants and amusement parks.

In Maryland, the visa program has been essential in providing workers for the crab industry. Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan urged the federal government to increase the number of visas available to “the maximum allowable under federal law.”

Around 450 H-2B visa employees work as crab pickers in Maryland in a typical year, Hogan said in his letter.

In a 2020 survey of the eight largest of Maryland’s 23 crab picking houses conducted by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, all eight agreed that hiring H-2B workers had helped their businesses grow. The majority agreed that without temporary migrant workers, their businesses would shut down for the season.

Without seasonal workers, watermen would lost $12.5 million in wages each year, crab processing plants would lose upwards of $37 million in sales, at least 950 jobs would be lost and the state’s economy could lose over $100 million, the 2020 survey reported.

President Donald Trump last year authorized an additional 35,000 H-2B visas above the annual cap. But three months later he halted the program along with other foreign worker programs under a sweeping executive order. Biden let the order expire.

Employers are required to attest that they are likely to suffer “irreparable harm” if they do not receive workers under the program.

In announcing this year’s annual supplemental increase, DHS said it would set aside 6,000 of the visas for people from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Central Americans, struggling with the pandemic, the aftermath of two hurricanes and more long-standing problems, make up a major portion of the increasing number of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. along the Southwest border.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the visas reflect the administration’s goal of “expanding lawful pathways for opportunity in the United States” for people from the Northern Triangle countries.

Hogan has suggested long-term solutions to the problems the 66,000-visa cap presents, such as reinstating the Returning Worker Exemption, which allowed foreign workers who had worked in the U.S. on an H-2B visa in the past three years to be exempt from the cap. He has also suggested exempting seafood workers, or simply eliminating the cap altogether.

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