Ma.Catarina Hernandez, of Ciudad del Maiz, picks crabs at a processing plant on Hoopers Island. (Thalia Juarez/Baltimore Sun)

The dozen crab pickers sharing a ranch home on this secluded Chesapeake Bay archipelago have decorated the bedroom walls with a Mexican flag, a crucifix, pictures of smiling kids at Christmas — all designed to soften a sense of being alone.

The seasonal workers are among about 400 who arrive on Maryland’s Eastern Shore nearly every year, mostly from Mexico. They endure months of cultural and geographical isolation in exchange for weekly paychecks of hundreds of dollars from crab processing plants to help support their families back home.

It is a sensitive time politically for the workers, who are nearly all women, and for the H-2B visa program, which grants them temporary entrance to the United States.

Vowing to put American workers first and protect the nation’s security, President Trump threatened earlier this year to close the southern border and impose tariffs on Mexican goods.

The H-2B program, which is more than 30 years old, has continued under Trump, although crab processing plants complained they were left shorthanded last year because the administration didn’t allow enough workers into the country.

To get the visas, companies must first demonstrate they can’t recruit American workers — through advertising and other means — to fill the jobs.


Melva Guadalupe Vazquez, 28, gets ready to clean her station at Lindy's Seafood plant on Hoopers Island. (Thalia Juarez/Baltimore Sun)

Melva Guadalupe Vazquez, 28, who came here from central Mexico in the spring under the program, knows that not everyone believes Mexican workers are needed.

Critics of the visa program, including immigration hard-liners, argue that guest workers potentially shut out Americans and lower the bar on what is appropriate to pay relatively unskilled labor.

Vazquez pauses and her eyes fill with tears at the idea that she and other guest workers are taking American jobs.

“When I hear that I get really mad,” said Vazquez, who arrived with her iPhone loaded with photos and videos of her 7-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. “It makes me mad because, when I’m working, I look at my hands and they’re bleeding, they’re hurt, they’re tired.”

She believes most Americans “truly don’t want to be doing this.”

Big demand for workers

Demand for the H-2B program is so high that congressional Democrats and Republicans often complain there aren’t enough visas for such industries as seafood processing, landscaping, housekeeping and amusement parks. So many applicants seeking the visas — including Maryland crab houses — logged into a website run by the U.S. Labor Department in the first moments of Jan. 1 that the system crashed within five minutes, according to the department.

“We cannot find [domestic] workers,” said Jay Newcomb, owner of Old Salty’s Restaurant in Fishing Creek. “We’ve done job fairs, we’ve contacted the detention centers, run ads all over the East Coast. We’ve tried colleges and temp agencies.”

Pushback comes from those who say the H-2B program is inconsistent with Trump’s pledge to put American workers first.

“The way you draw idle people back into the world of work is to keep the labor market tight, not by pulling in guest workers,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank supporting tighter immigration controls.

Trump has used H-2B workers as cooks, servers and housekeepers at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, according to online Labor Department records. “We are an exclusive, high-end private club located in Palm Beach, Florida,” said an H-2B application for Mar-a-Lago housekeepers this year. “We offer social and recreational activities for which demand greatly increases during Florida’s peak season from October through May.”

In interviews conducted mostly in Spanish, Vazquez and other workers appeared torn about how — or whether — to respond to critical statements about seasonal workers and Mexico. Vazquez cited Trump’s comments and accused him of “racismo,” Spanish for racism. Others hedged their comments so as not to seem ungrateful or jeopardize job opportunities that their families have come to rely on.

“I’m not here to take anyone’s job. There are a lot of Latino hands in this country lifting up the economic life of this country,” said Vazquez, who has traveled to Maryland’s Eastern Shore for crab season the past three years. “I do not accept or agree with the ideals of the president we currently have here in the United States, but I also respect the decisions that are made, good or bad. As long as we are offered work visas, then we’ll be here.”

Vazquez was interviewed at the ranch house, where women sleep on bunk beds and hang their clothes on a line outside. The laborers say they must constantly wash clothes because the pungent crab smell seems to attach itself to the material.

“I don’t mind because the smell of crabs is the smell of money,” said Martha Olivares Garcia, 64, of Veracruz, who has been a guest worker for nearly 30 years. Pickers add to their hourly rate — generally $9.60 — based on their production, and some earn more than $500 a week.

In return, they spend as long as eight months — some arrive in April and don’t leave until November.

“We’re here alone,” Garcia said. “We don’t know anyone. We just know each other.”

All in a day's work

At Lindy’s Seafood, where Vazquez and Garcia work, shifts may begin at 2 a.m. They run up to 10 hours, depending on the volume of crabs, with a one-hour lunch break.

Vazquez heard about the program from other workers and a local recruiter in Ciudad del Maiz, the municipality in central Mexico where she lives.

“We leave our kids and they’re so young, so it’s really difficult to talk about,” Vazquez said. “Sometimes you lie. You have to tell your children, you know, ‘It’ll just be a few days.’ ”

Before heading for work, she packs a lunch, a pair of gloves and two small crab picking knives, then walks down a narrow road a quarter-mile to work.

Inside the plant — a squat, white cinder block building — the crabs are wheeled in on a dolly the size of a small dumpster, then placed in piles on long, stainless steel tables for picking.

The gloved workers crack the shells and quickly maneuver their knives, piling the meat into small plastic containers marked with numbers to identify how much each laborer extracted.

The only sound — save occasionally for Spanish-language music — is a constant rustling as the knives work and the shells are cracked.

Visa shortages

In the 1980s, crab houses started bringing workers from Mexico.

But last year, changes to the H-2B program left crab processing plants in Dorchester County teetering on the precipice, with half of the county’s eight picking houses unable to secure enough visas.

Family businesses such as Lindy’s “had a lot of conversations that were really scary about how are we going to get through this,” said sales manager Aubrey Vincent. She said Lindy’s — which usually has annual sales of about $9 million to $10 million — had to unload many crabs whole instead of selling their meat to restaurants and grocery stores much more profitably. Selling crabs whole usually yields at least 50 percent less money.

Other plants also reported revenue being cut nearly in half, and Dorchester’s economy felt the effects.

This year, the plants said they got enough visas but remain concerned because they believe the program has gotten caught up in the administration’s efforts to tighten immigration policies.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” said Bill Seiling, executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

'I hope my kids understand'

When they’re not working or sleeping, the workers watch Spanish-language soap operas in the houses they share or play on their phones.

Often, they talk to their children in Mexico on video apps that don’t always function because of poor cell signals or lackluster WiFi.

“For the most part we really don’t have any time,” said Garcia, the Lindy’s worker who first entered the program at a Virginia plant 29 years ago.

“We’re always working. We even work Saturdays. The only day we take off is Sunday when they take us out to buy groceries,” she said. “If I have the opportunity, I go to Mass on Sundays.”

Staying busy is a salve of sorts because it blocks out the yearning to be back with their families. It is for them that Garcia, Vazquez and the others endure the separation year after year, earning money that in a rural Mexican village might pay for food all winter or finance such luxuries as an indoor bathroom. Garcia, who lives in a small city, said she has used the income to pay for her three daughters’ education.

“I hope my kids understand one day why I do this,” Vazquez said, “and why I have to be away.”

— Baltimore Sun