Olivia Rubio does the hard, tedious work of extracting crab meat on Hooper’s Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Hooper’s Island is part of chain of three sparsely populated islands in the Chesapeake Bay. After crossing a single bridge, the main road winds through picturesque watermen’s villages and unpopulated areas. Hooper’s is a center for seafood catching and processing.
Rubio has been coming for 15 years from Mexico to work in one of the island’s crab houses on an H2-B visa — a guest worker program that has been a continual issue in the crab industry for business owners in the Maryland Eastern Shore.
“We have the opportunity to come here to work and support our family, help our children move forward, and support our parents. It’s good. We have work. So, we’re grateful,” Rubio said.
As a temporary guest worker, Rubio can live and work in the U.S. during the warmer months and then return to her home country in the winter.
Though glad to receive the visa, Rubio wonders about next year; the Trump administration, citing higher demand this year, awarded the visas by lottery, instead of first-come, first-served.
“I hope there are visas to be able to come back and do the work again,” she said.
Rubio’s employer, GW Hall & Son Seafood, needed 40 visas but only got enough for 30 guest workers.
“I don’t know what we would do or the whole area would do without them. I mean from the stores to… I don’t even know how to describe it because of the impact that they have. They keep it all moving,” Robin Hall, co-owner, GW Hall & Son Seafood, told VOA.
Since the 1980s, crab houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore have had to hire temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico, to extract meat from the crabs’ hard shells. Maryland has 20 licensed crab businesses, employing 500 foreign workers.
In fiscal year 2018, 66,000 H-2B visas were available nationwide for nonagricultural industries. In its budget bill passed in March, Congress said the cap could be raised.
Amid the crisis, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who represents Hooper’s Island in Congress, has asked the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor for extra guest worker visas.
Harris said the fiscal year 2018 cap of H-2B visas was filled on January 1, 2018, which left many businesses unable to obtain the temporary seasonal labor they need.
“The H-2B visa program is a crucial resource for many seasonal businesses … and supports thousands of related jobs held by American citizens. … These temporary workers must pay American taxes, have a clean criminal record, receive no government benefits, and return to their home countries when their visas expire,” Harris said.
But on background, a DHS official offered “no new guidance to share.”
Continuing to pick crab meat, Rubio told VOA that a lot of her friends – who come annually – haven’t got visas.
“So they can’t come here to work, and they need it,” she said.
At nearby Russell Hall Seafood, the baskets and crates are empty. The kitchen is unused. There are no workers in sight.
Harry Phillips’ company, Russell Hall Seafood, needed 50 visas but got none.
“It never was this way before. We’ve done this for 25 years and no doubt some years it’s been slow getting workers, but we’ve always got them,” he said.
Phillips still has ads in local newspapers and is trying to hire local people.
“We have to actually advertise in newspapers before we’re allowed to even apply for the H-2B program workers, and we do that with a couple of different newspapers and I actually have ads in the paper now for workers, but nobody’s applied,” Phillips said.
Phillips does not like the lottery system when it comes to H-2B visas.
“That’s a big gamble. I mean, we can’t run our business at a gamble whether we’re going to get our workers or not.
Phillips’ work phone telephone rang. On the other end, a worker asked when visas would become available.
“You see? It’s them asking about the visas,” Phillips explained.
AE Phillips and Son, part of the Phillips Seafood restaurant chain, is also shut down unless workers become available. The company got its start in 1916.
But the plant’s general manager, Morgan Tolley, said he is “really worried” about 2019.
“We had some problems going on with immigration. A lot of issues are up in the air. A lot of things that people don’t understand or they think they understand. Speaking for the H2B program, which is a non-immigrant work visa, to me personally, that has nothing to do with immigration. It’s a non-immigrant work visa. These people take tremendous pride in the fact that they can come here to United States and work and go home and they’re proud of that right that they have earned,” Tolley said.
No locals anymore
“It tears me up.” Hall, who was operating with 75 percent of his workforce including Rubio, did not feel particularly happy or fortunate.
“I’m tickled to death to have [my workers]… But I want us all to get them. I’d really actually almost rather see everybody get them or nobody get them, so we could all be together as a group,” he said.
And he has no hope that American workers will fill the gap. “You rode down here, did you see any American people running around because there’s nobody around here?” he asked VOA.
“The few people we have here are retired from somewhere else. They moved down here and have a home here on the water and this was a great vacation spot.
Standing on the platform where crabs would be unloaded when they came in, Hall continued, “There’s no local people here anymore. Population’s got so low that you can’t get anybody from it.”