The Biden administration announced it was increasing the number of visas available this spring and summer for temporary foreign workers, giving the Chesapeake Bay crab industry a last-minute reprieve.
But this decision does not provide the lasting reforms sought by the industry.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor said March 31 that they would make available an additional 35,000 nonfarm worker visas for employers nationwide.
H-2B visas, as they are called, are in effect from April 1 through September 30, which coincides with the peak of Chesapeake crabbing season. Crab-picking houses rely primarily on workers from Mexico and Central America to pick crabmeat and load it into containers.
As in recent years, domestic demand for temporary foreign workers has far exceeded the visa cap set by Congress. The government received requests for more than 130,000 workers but was only able to respond to 33,000 of those requests.
The lottery system used to assign the visas left nine of 10 crab-picking houses on Maryland’s Hoopers Island entirely without H-2B workers. Industry members said the visa shortage threatened to decimate the Chesapeake crabmeat supply and financially cripple crab-picking houses that weren’t taking in workers.
The additional allocation consists of 23,500 visas available to returning workers, especially those who received an H-2B visa in any of the last three fiscal years. The remaining 11,500 visas are reserved for nationals of Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, officials said.
The Chesapeake Region seafood industry and legislative allies say they will continue to push for a permanent solution to the problem, such as creating a separate visa program for seafood employers. This way, they would no longer be competing in the lottery with construction and landscaping companies.