Joined at the Claw

Piecey Saunders, left, jokes with Mexican worker Nelia Manzanares Angel at J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge.
Piecey Saunders, left, jokes with Mexican worker Nelia Manzanares Angel at J.M. Clayton Seafood in Cambridge. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- Jack Brooks tried hiring prisoners just out of jail. He sent a bus to Baltimore to pick up workers from an unemployment center. He recruited high school dropouts at vocational schools. Anything to keep his century-old family business running.

But if Marylanders regard the crabbing life as the state at its most real and romantic, hardly anyone wants a dirty, smelly, hand-gouging job that keeps you in a metal chair up to nine hours a day, lasts only eight months a year and pays about $15,000 for the season.

So now this 56-year-old man -- whose thumbnails, crushed by crab claws, bear witness to his labor -- spends his time filling out forms and sending notarized documents to federal agencies for permission to bring Mexicans to steam and pick crabs at his family's J.M. Clayton Seafood.

He is one of the people at the heart of the debate in Washington over a proposal to expand the ranks of foreign workers as part of a wholesale reworking of immigration law. So is Olga Gonzales, one of the 100 Mexicans working for him.

They are unlikely partners.

Brooks was born and schooled on Maryland's Eastern Shore, on the banks of the Choptank River. He drives through the cobbled streets of Cambridge and smiles as he calls out a "How are you?" to Sissy Jones, one of about a dozen local residents who still pick crabs for his family, as did her mother and aunt before her.

All he can say to Gonzales and his other Mexican employees is hola. All they know of his community is the aging Clayton Seafood crab house with its white walls and cold cement floor, weekly trips to Wal-Mart, Saturday night mass at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners, and watching the one Spanish television station in the rickety rental homes they share.

Yet Brooks and Gonzales are bound by the global economy. One in need of work. The other in search of laborers.

If Gonzales had her druthers, she would toil in Mexico, sticking close to her 4-year-old daughter and elderly parents.

"If you don't come here, you don't eat in Mexico," she says matter-of-factly after a full day of picking crabs.

If Brooks had his, he would employ Americans.

"I don't want to deal with this bureaucracy," Brooks said. "Every year, we are vulnerable. . . . This is not my perfect world, but this is what keeps us going."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company