When crab season hit Hoopersville, a remote eastern United States town, locals began to wonder where José Bronero Cruz was. For two decades, he had traveled every year from his native Mexico to collect crab meat, but this spring he did not arrive.
Neither did any of the other foreign workers on whom Janet Rippons-Ruark relies to process the meat of the blue crabs that make the state of Maryland famous, exacerbating a labor shortage that puts this iconic American industry in check.
“We survived the covid. But we are in an area where there is simply no local help,” Rippons-Ruark said.
The lack of visas for foreign workers, combined with the disruptions brought by the novel coronavirus pandemic, crippled a portion of Maryland’s crab industry this year, forcing two-thirds of major seafood processors to survive on the few employees who they could find, or close completely.
A batch of visas issued in early October finally allowed Cruz and other temporary workers to enter the country, but with an immigration policy in Washington that appears to be at an indefinite stalemate, crab industry leaders worry about their future.
“Whether we can survive the personnel problem remains to be seen,” said Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
– Backbone of the industry –
Blue crabs harvested from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay are perhaps Maryland’s most famous export, the second-largest-producing state in the 2018 U.S. season, valued at $ 188.4 million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. .
The industry is at the mercy of the weather – as are regulations aimed at protecting crab habitats – but some years experience exceptional bonanzas, such as in 2020, when prices rose as the arrival of the pandemic seemed to increase the popularity of the crab .
“We are not in what is called a growth industry at the moment, but we have a domestic product that a lot of people want,” Brooks said.
The work of processing crabs, which involves steaming them, splitting their shells, removing the gills and collecting the meat to sell, is thankless. It’s a job that industry leaders say few Americans want to do, mostly because it’s temporary jobs.
Thus, companies depend on workers brought in from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, who enter with temporary H-2B visas.
Migrant rights organizations have accused the industry of keeping workers in substandard housing and giving them insufficient access to health care.
But for Cruz, traveling from the southern Mexican state of Tabasco to Hoopersville, located at the end of a road so low that it is hit by the waves, is better than trying to find work in his country.
“You don’t make money in Mexico,” Cruz, 46, told AFP. “Here, yes.”
– “Nothing has improved” –
The United States allows 66,000 H-2B visas to be issued each year. Brooks says the Maryland crab industry only needs about 450, but in the face of competition from industries like forestry and landscaping, it’s hard to come by.
In early 2020, more than 99,000 visas were applied for, according to the Labor Department.
But according to Brooks, a change in the visa allocation procedure proved disastrous and only three processors received the authorizations they needed at the start of the season in April.
The government said in March that it would give 35,000 more visas, but the plan was left in a wet letter with the arrival of the pandemic.
That meant that for six months, until the next batch of visas was issued in October, half a dozen processing plants had to deal with the workers they could find and others had to close.
“We want this to be fixed,” said Rippons-Ruark, which only sold live crabs until its workers arrived, and is now struggling to fill orders for meat in the remaining two months of the season.
“It’s hard to be in business without a permanent solution,” he says.
The revision of the immigration system in the United States has been debated for years but no proposal has reached Congress, and as the November elections approach, businessmen are skeptical that Republican President Donald Trump will alleviate the shortage of visas if you get a second term.
They also don’t expect changes should his rival, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, win.
“Biden was there all those years. He did nothing to resolve the situation,” said Jay Newcomb, president of the county council and owner of a crab business. And in Trump’s term, “nothing was done,” he added.
Joe Spurry has managed to keep his business, Bay Hundred Seafood, by bringing in workers from a distant Washington suburb.
But the group he employed for years is close to retirement, and Spurry has resigned himself to applying for H-2B visas soon.
“It is not the business that delays us,” he says. “It is the workforce.”
cs / mdl / yo / dga