correction: Earlier versions of this article gave incorrect information about the H-2B visa program. Congress authorizes the number of visas that may be issued, while the Trump administration issues them.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday pressed Trump administration officials to grant more work visas to immigrants, arguing seasonal laborers such as migrant crab pickers are a pillar of the Chesapeake Bay’s seafood industry.
Hogan, a moderate Republican weighing a 2020 primary challenge to President Trump, wrote to Cabinet secretaries that issuing fewer seasonal visas than Congress has authorized “could permanently damage Maryland’s seafood industry, causing . . . iconic family businesses to close and having a devastating impact on jobs in our state.”
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Hogan argued that each of the roughly 500 seasonal crab pickers who used to migrate to Maryland’s Eastern Shore generate 2.5 jobs for U.S. citizens. He cited a University of Maryland study and said the loss of those jobs, in turn, “threaten the livelihoods of commercial crabbers and waterman.”
Congress changed its rules for the H-2B visa program in 2017, and the Trump administration then began awarding them in a lottery, rather than the first-come, first-served basis that had been in place before.
Maryland’s crab processing houses last year reported they could secure only a fraction of the visas needed to operate their plants and supply wholesale, freshly picked seafood for crab cakes and other Chesapeake Bay staples.
Several companies said they offered jobs — and training — to locals, but they could not field enough workers willing to do the monotonous and labor-intensive work of stripping meat from steamed crabs for eight hours a day. Some operations shut down completely, others contemplated moving to Mexico, where a ready supply of trained laborers already existed.
Hogan’s letter said Maryland’s $355 million seafood industry could not survive those conditions for a second year.
To buttress his argument, Hogan’s office produced and released a six-minute, documentary-style video featuring Maryland watermen, seafood processors and crab pickers struggling with last year’s labor shortage.
“The whole immigration issue has just gotten so blown out of proportion, ” Bill Seiling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association says in the video. “People don’t even know what they’re talking about. Our program isn’t even an immigration program. It’s a worker program.”
In response to an outcry from businesses last year, the Trump administration allowed a one-time increase of 15,000 H-2B visas in midsummer.
The president promised in January to allow more seasonal farmworkers into the country, but he did not address the seasonal laborers, like crab pickers, who use the H-2B visas.