- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005


A shortage of migrant oyster shuckers and crab pickers is threatening to delay Senate action on an $80.6 billion emergency bill to pay for continuing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Crab season opened April 1 in Maryland, but several businesses in the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry are without pickers and shuckers because the ceiling of 66,000 visas for foreign workers under the government’s H2B visa program was reached Jan. 3. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, is trying to amend the Iraq bill to do something about the quota.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, was feverishly trying to keep the bill free of immigration issues after the House last month included measures to deny driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and tighten political asylum laws.

Senators on both sides of a number of divisive immigration issues — among them President Bush’s desire to let illegal immigrants remain in the country under a work program — said bringing up any one of them would open the floodgates to them all.

“It will open a long and complicated debate on the floor of the Senate,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “We should not do that, please.”

Despite pleas from Mr. Frist, Mrs. Feinstein and the White House, Miss Mikulski refused to back off her attempt to amend the bill to provide Maryland seafood businesses more low-wage immigrant workers. Her proposal would exempt from the quota seasonal workers who were hired in previous years.

“It would be wonderful if we could have comprehensive reform,” she said. “But for now we have to look at those states that are facing a crisis because of a flawed immigration system.”

Businesses can’t apply for the workers until 120 days before they are needed, which means the nationwide quota is reached long before Maryland’s crabbing and oyster operations need their temporary workers.

Miss Mikulski decided to proceed with her measure after Mr. Frist wouldn’t promise to oppose the House immigration provisions when negotiators meet to blend the Senate and House versions into a final bill, said a Democratic source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Four Maryland seafood processors got H2B workers this season. But 13 others in the state and a cannery that account for about 75 percent of the production did not, said Jack Brooks, owner of JM Clayton, a seafood wholesaler in Cambridge, Md.

A cooler-than-normal spring has delayed the beginning of crab harvesting and provided a temporary reprieve but, without more workers, some businesses could close, Mr. Brooks said yesterday.

“If we lose our production capability for a year, our markets are going to be gone to cheaper imports,” he said. “Don’t penalize us because we’re trying to do it legally. A lot of people are out there hiring illegally. We don’t want to do that.”

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