On the Hill, Isle's Livelihood Crawls Along

Women from central Mexico pick crabs at Rippons Brothers seafood on Hoopers Island, whose residents await a vote on crab-labor legislation.
Women from central Mexico pick crabs at Rippons Brothers seafood on Hoopers Island, whose residents await a vote on crab-labor legislation. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

FISHING CREEK, Md. -- The people of Hoopers Island have learned to be patient with unpredictable things. Dependent on the Chesapeake Bay, they must wait for the weather to warm up, wait for fish to swim into their nets, wait for blue crabs to stir from their winter burrows.

But none of the waiting prepared them to deal with the U.S. Congress.

Since last week, the attention of this low-lying, isolated island has been riveted on Capitol Hill, where a balky conference committee is considering a measure that could re-start the island's crab-processing industry.

A vote was supposed to come Wednesday. It didn't.

Then it was supposed to be on Thursday. Delayed again.

Last week, as the committee's fits and starts have been relayed here by phone, the islanders have gotten a quick lesson in the unhurried, idiosyncratic workings of Washington.

Even for people at peace with the mysterious rhythms of nature, it has been enough to make them agitated and anxious.

"It's uncalled for, really," said Jay L. Newcomb, the general manager at the A.E. Phillips and Son plant, when he heard that the vote hoped for on Thursday hadn't come.

Actually, that was the second thing he said. His first reaction was unprintable.

The measure that the islanders are waiting for is an amendment by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) that was attached to a bill funding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The legislation would raise the number of immigrant "guest workers" allowed into the United States for seasonal jobs.

The measure is important to Hoopers Island because the crab-processing plants on the Dorchester County island have come to rely on immigrant labor. Plant owners have said that nowadays, U.S. workers simply won't do the painful, low-paying job of picking meat out of steamed crabs.

This year, the national cap of 66,000 visas per year was reached before many Chesapeake processors got in their applications. Other seasonal businesses, such as tourist resorts and the lawn care industry, snapped them up before the crab processors were allowed to apply.


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