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Shore lawmakers seek long-term H-2B visa fix

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Shore lawmakers seek longterm H-2B visa fix

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md, discusses H-2B visas with the Eastern Shore Delegation Friday, March 6, in Annapolis.

ANNAPOLIS — On the heels of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s announcement that it will hand out additional H-2B visas to aid Maryland’s seafood industry, the Eastern Shore Delegation urged U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to work toward nailing down a long-term fix.

Del. Chris Adams, R-37B-Wicomico, said to Van Hollen, who met with the delegation during its weekly meeting Friday, March 6, in Annapolis, that he was “happy” to hear about the short-term fix. Though, Adams called the recurring shortage of seasonal workers “gut-wrenching” for the Shore’s seafood operations.

The DHS grants a maximum of 66,000 visas to foreign nationals each year through the H-2B visa program, which is operated like a lottery. The workers are spread half-and-half to assist non-agricultural companies across the country between the first and second periods of the year.

If a company doesn’t win workers through the lottery, like many of the Eastern Shore’s seafood packing houses experienced this year, the business’s operations could be forced to halt — unless the DHS agrees to release supplemental visas, as it did this year and has done in previous years.

“Last time this happened was a couple years ago, and it’s gut-wrenching from the Eastern Shore perspective that these (shortages) tend to come back up for whatever reason,” Adams said, adding, “it’d be great” to see a lasting solution in the works.

Van Hollen responded to Adams’s concerns, saying, “I realize it’s hard when it seems like we’re doing this on a short-term basis rather than having a long-term solution.”

A permanent fix is “necessary,” Van Hollen said, assuring that he, along with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Congressman Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, is working to try to “distinguish (seafood) from some of the other (industries) that get caught up around H-2B visas.”

Van Hollen’s suggestion that the DHS should treat seafood operations different from other H-2B visa recipients — such as the hospitality industry — has also been raised by Phillips Seafood CEO Steve Phillips, who owns a locally and nationally renowned seafood packing house on the Eastern Shore.

Phillips said during a Jan. 24 meeting with the Shore delegation in Annapolis that seafood is “unique” and should be exempt from the visa lottery system. Because of the seafood industry’s strictly seasonal nature, he said, it “should not have these restrictions.”

Van Hollen didn’t indicate whether that option was seeing serious consideration at the federal level. However, Van Hollen did point out Friday that this year’s DHS H-2B visa lifeline will allot 20,000 of the 35,000 workers to the first half of the year, beginning in April, which is when seafood operations will begin take off.

“Of course, more H-2B visas in October doesn’t do anything to help the crab houses and the seafood industry, so that was an important step forward,” he said.

While many seafood industry players have voiced distaste for the H-2B visa lottery system, it doesn’t appear the system is going anywhere anytime soon.

However, it’s likely reassuring for the business operators to know the effort to get the DHS to release the additional visas this year was statewide — with Gov. Larry Hogan stepping in to send a nudging letter to the department to help Maryland’s seafood industry.

In a statement March 5, Hogan said of the news, “I am pleased to report that our efforts to make additional H-2B visas available to help our state’s seafood industry have again proven successful.”

“While we still urgently need a long-term solution to this problem, this announcement is welcome relief for our state’s iconic crab processing houses and seafood industry,” Hogan said.

Hogan pointed to a study conducted by Maryland’s Best Seafood — a state Department of Agriculture marketing program — which found that, without the help of the H-2B visa system’s foreign seasonal workers, watermen’s income would drop by $12.5 million, seafood processors would lose nearly $49 million in sales, Maryland would drop 914 to 1,367 jobs, and the overall hit to the state’s economy could reach $150 million.

At the federal level, Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore and participated in the effort to help its strained seafood companies this year and in previous years, wrote in a statement March 5 that he’s going to continue pushing for an enduring solution to the H-2B visa issue.

“I remain committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to pass a permanent solution to the chronic H-2B visa shortage across this country — something that only Congress can do,” Harris said.

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