Jack Brooks observes the 25 or so women sitting at stainless steel tables, picking lumps of meat out of blue crabs fished from the Chesapeake Bay. There are a handful of Americans and about 18 Mexicans packing up small tubs for sale to restaurants and markets.
"We have to have the Mexican workers just to sustain our business. American workers simply are not available," the co-owner of J.M. Clayton Co., a Cambridge, Md., business founded by his great-grandfather in 1890, said last month.
Many in the United States disagree, arguing that foreign workers drive down wages and impose social, cultural and other costs on the United States.
But Mr. Brooks earlier this year led a popular effort by the Maryland crab industry to deal with a potential shortage of foreign workers, making sure Mexicans could keep heading to the Eastern Shore, legally, where they are an integral part of the local economy.
Seafood processors won a two-year reprieve when Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, ushered into law a temporary increase in the number of seasonal workers who can come to the United States.
The potential shortage of seasonal workers along the Chesapeake illustrated a broader problem in the United States -- a mismatch between the supply and demand for legal foreign labor.
"Compared to the need for workers in the economy, [the seafood industry] was a relatively small number we were talking about. But I think it helps point out that the immigration system is broken," said John Gay, vice president for government relations at the International Franchise Association and a co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group that is pressing for more legal, year-round foreign workers for restaurant, health care, construction, building maintenance, landscaping and similar jobs.
Groups like the coalition are tied into a loose alliance of business associations, civil rights groups, religious organizations and unions that are trying to win a broader, permanent change to laws that would allow immigrants easier, legal entry into the U.S. work force and grant amnesty to illegal aliens already here.
"Regardless of race, heritage or national origin, we are one family under God," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick said last month at a press conference announcing "Justice for Immigrants," a church campaign led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference has joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the union Unite Here, National Council of La Raza and other groups seeking broad immigration reform, including amnesty for illegals.
Such proposals have proven controversial in Congress and unpopular among groups that want some restrictions placed on immigration. Some argue that amnesty rewards lawbreakers and say foreign labor suppresses wages and stifles productivity gains while placing new burdens on society.
"There is no work that won't get done without immigrants," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank. Without immigration, wages and working conditions would improve, giving U.S. workers incentives to take jobs, while businesses would become more efficient, he said.
The U.S. unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in April, indicating 7.7 million Americans were looking for a job, the Labor Department said.
Business groups say that despite unemployment, U.S.-born workers do not want to take jobs now filled by immigrants. Native-born workers often do not want low-skill work or are unable to move to places where low-skill jobs exist, or they aspire to jobs that require higher skill or education levels.
"In our economy, there's never a perfect connection between the unemployed and available jobs," said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In occupations with the strongest immigrant-driven employment growth, wages have increased, according to Labor Department data. Precision production, craft and repair occupations -- jobs like mechanics and construction workers -- saw 86 percent of all new jobs filled by immigrants from 1996-2002, the Labor Department said.
From 1997 to 2003, wages in those occupations increased 19 percent. At the highest skill level, the increase was 26 percent, while at the lowest it was 11 percent.
The Center for Immigration Studies last year said wages would be higher without immigration. By increasing the labor supply, foreign workers reduced the average annual earnings of native-born workers by an estimated $1,700, or roughly 4 percent.
Higher wages would attract some native workers, but some employers doubt that they could hire enough Americans to fill all the jobs. In the Maryland seafood industry, for example, businesses say few Americans apply for the tedious and smelly work.
"I wish I could hire Americans, but that's just not going to happen," said Robin Hall, owner of G.W. Hall & Sons in Fishing Creek, Md.
Immigrants don't just fill low-skilled jobs, either. In 2004, the U.S. government allotted 65,000 visas for occupations such as architecture, engineering, mathematics and physical sciences.
Immigration issues were sent to Congress' back burner after September 11 and remained there through the presidential election. President Bush last year proposed broad immigration reform, and lawmakers now are hashing out their own plans.
"For far too long, the debate over immigration has divided Americans of good will into one of two camps -- those who are angry and frustrated by our failure to enforce the rule of law, and those who are angry and frustrated that our immigration laws do not reflect reality," said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, at a May 17 hearing on immigration reform. The hearing was one in a series leading toward immigration reform legislation; the fifth was held last week.
Another group of legislators led by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, introduced legislation May 13 that would increase border security, create a three-year visa for 400,000 workers, offer some illegal aliens temporary visas, step up enforcement against illegal alien workers and make other changes to U.S. law.
"This is a two- to three-year debate. This is pretty big," said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Mr. Johnson.
Maryland seafood companies bring about 7,700 workers to the United States for jobs that can run from April to November. It is a small percentage of the 66,000 seasonal workers allotted visas annually, the 21.4 million foreign-born workers in the United States and the more than 10 million illegal aliens in the country.
J.M. Clayton, the crab processor, relies on about 65 foreign workers during the height of the harvest and processing season, usually in the fall, Mr. Brooks said. The minimum wage for the Mexican workers is roughly $5.25 an hour, but most earn more when they get paid at a piece rate of $2.25 per pound. An efficient picker can make more than $10 per hour.
About 55 Americans also work at the plant, some cleaning crabs but others working automated machinery, at the receiving dock, packaging and other tasks. Mr. Brooks said the Bay's watermen also rely on foreign workers, because without processing plants they would not be able to sell the bulk of their catch.
"They save a lot of American jobs," Mr. Brooks said of the foreign workers.