The owner of seafood and ice-processing companies on Maryland’s Eastern Shore pleaded guilty this week to employing at least 89 illegal immigrant workers and also abusing the system for guest-workers, undercutting Americans’ wages.
Philip J. “Jamie” Harrington III, owner of Captain Phip’s Seafood and a network of other companies, was nabbed after a Homeland Security officer made a spot-check to the business in 2017 to see how it was using the guest-workers it had hired under the H-2B visa program.
Those visas are for seasonal non-agricultural workers, and businesses that use them are supposed to try to find willing native workers first, at the prevailing wage, before looking for migrant labor.
But Harrington admitted the business hired migrant workers for one lower-paying job description, then actually put them to work in higher-paying slots undercutting the higher wages he should have been offering to Americans first.
Federal prosecutors say agents also saw H-2B workers hired by Captain Phip’s being sent to work for other companies owned by Harrington, which is also a breach of the law.
Harrington admitted his companies hired other migrants who were in the country without any legal status at all — including some who were even in deportation proceedings at the time. Prosecutors said they found records showing 89 illegal immigrants were employed between 2013 and 2018.
Harrington, 50, a resident of Dorchester, has run the companies since 2019, after the death of his father, Philip J. Harrington Jr.
Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner said they led “a calculated pattern of visa fraud” that hurt American workers.
“Rather than play by the rules that other businesses follow, the defendants manipulated the H2-B visa program for the sole purpose of increasing their profits at the expense of their employees and the fair market,” the prosecutor said.
Despite admitting to multiple offenses, Harrington pleaded guilty to just one charge of unlawful employment of aliens and visa fraud.
He faces a maximum of six months in prison for the visa fraud, and probation for hiring illegal immigrants. He also faces up to $767,000 in fines.
“Is it any wonder that employers continue to use illegal aliens and nonimmigrant workers to avoid paying fair wages to Americans?” Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
“The civil and criminal penalties for this abuse are so paltry as to be an acceptable risk for greedy employers who don’t care about their community or their country,” she said.
The Harringtons had previously been accused of misusing migrant labor.
Fifteen migrants sued in the 1990s saying they’d been promised $250 a week and good living conditions to come work for the family picking crab meat. Instead they were shunted into a one-bedroom house and take-home pay was just $15 a week, they claimed.
Under the H-2B program, an employer is supposed to seek American workers at the local prevailing wage for that job, and only if none are found can the employer hire through the visa program.
Prosecutors say the Harringtons got wage determinations from the Labor Department in 2016 for ice machine operators, at a wage of $11.10; ice conveyor operators, at a wage of $12.51; and oyster production workers, at a wage of $16.96.
The Harringtons then applied to USCIS only for ice machine operators, the lowest-wage work, then used them to do the oyster work that should have paid nearly $6 more.
Court documents don’t say why an officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that handles legal worker applications, decided to make the site visit on Aug. 31, 2017.
But it came amid a new push by the Trump administration to crack down on employers who were abusing the system to undercut American workers.
Site visits to other visa programs have been a staple of USCIS’s efforts, but the Trump team put a particular focus on H-2B applicants, legal analysts said, including setting up an anonymous tip line to report fraud.
The H-2B program is among the more controversial of the government’s guest-worker programs. It’s heavily used by businesses in seasonal vacation spots, such as ski resorts or beach towns, and is also used by landscapers and seafood processing plants.
Backers say those companies struggle to find Americans willing to do the non-year-round work, and migrants are the only option.
Opponents say the program invites fraud and abuse, as happened with the Harringtons.
Under the law, the number of H-2B workers is supposed to be capped at 66,000 per year, with half allocated to the winter season and half to the summer season. But under pressure from businesses, Congress in recent years has approved a waiver giving the Homeland Security Department the power to raise the cap.
This year Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas added 22,000 new visas. All of those were grabbed as of Aug. 13, USCIS said.