Kratovil Gets Thank-You Lunch For H2B Visa Effort

U.S. Representative Frank Kratovil, D-Md.-1st, and representatives for Maryland’s U.S. senators and governor were feted last week at Old Salty’s Restaurant for efforts that resulted in the release of 25,000 H2B temporary worker visas, clearing the way for foreign workers to return to the region’s seafood packing plants and canneries.

For more than a decade, Dorchester’s crab processing plants have been staffed primarily by foreign workers through the federal temporary worker program. Because of the seasonal nature of the work and the specialized skills needed to pick crabs, young people living in Dorchester County have no interest in the jobs. This year the issue of immigration reform hit hard on the Eastern Shore, where crab packers and canneries have come to rely on H2B workers.

H2B visas were capped at 66,000 for the 2009 federal fiscal year, which began October 1, 2008, and divided between the first and second half of the year. Another aspect of the program which worked against the Shore’s seasonal employers was the requirement that applications could not be submitted until 120 days before the temporary workers were needed. Only one Dorchester County seafood packer obtained H2B visas this year through the initial application process, even though most of the county’s seafood plants have developed working relationships with immigrant workers, primarily from Mexico, who were more than ready to return this year to pick crabs.

Kratovil said he was not alone in his effort to obtain H2B visas for Shore businesses, crediting U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin and Governor Martin O’Malley and their staffs, as well as state legislators including Delegate Addie Eckardt and Senator Richard Colburn, for their support of the issue. Although he could not drum up enough support among his colleagues to pass legislation that would make more H2B visas available, Kratovil is credited with getting U.S. Homeland Security bureaucrats to recognize that there were unused H2B visas available and to have another application period opened to allow for distribution of the 25,360 unused visas.