Trump’s visa crackdown is hitting Maryland’s crab industry hard

Businesses on the coast are reeling.

Women pick crabs at the W.T. Ruark Seafood Co., on May 17, 2018 in Hoopers Island, Maryland. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Women pick crabs at the W.T. Ruark Seafood Co., on May 17, 2018 in Hoopers Island, Maryland. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Businesses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are feeling the sting from President Donald Trump’s “America first” immigration and visa policies, as establishments struggle to hire workers.

Crab-picking houses typically enjoy busy summer seasons in Maryland, which is famous for its seafood. But this year around a third of crab-picking jobs remain unfilled due to a shortage in seasonal labor. Crackdowns on the H-2B visa program — which allows workers to come from other countries to the United States for a brief stint before returning home — have left the industry in a bind.

Business owners say the program is vital to their efforts, as many U.S. citizens are uninterested in the work and rarely seek it out. But last winter, Trump announced that the visas would now come through a lottery, part of a wide-scale shakeup of the U.S. immigration and visa system, which in the past has allotted such jobs on a first-come, first-served basis. Congress also did away with an exemption allowing returning workers to avoid a cap imposed on the number of hires.

Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood, told the Washington Post that the new system has cost his business dearly.

“There’s nothing going on at all, ’cause we haven’t got our pickers,” Phillips said.

Efforts to offer incentives — like higher wages and overtime — isn’t having much of an impact either for unlucky business owners who failed to obtain visas for their workers this year. Critics of the H-2B visa program have argued its recipients take the place of U.S. workers, but under U.S. law, employers are required to publicize listings locally before broadening to an international market. Businesses who have tried say domestic job-seekers aren’t interested in the work, even when wages are raised.


Guest workers, however, typically have no intent to immigrate or remain in the United States and come only for the higher wages, which they can then bring home when the season ends. Crab-picking workers often come from Mexico and the majority are women. For those workers, the lack of visas in the United States means less money for their families and basic necessities.

For U.S. businesses, meanwhile, the situation could mean dramatic changes.  Phillips indicated to the Post that he was considering taking his business elsewhere if the current crackdown on visas continues.

“What future’s gonna be here if we don’t know if we’re gonna get our workers?” Phillips said. “Our girls are right in Mexico, and they have crabs just like we have.”

Another business owner, Bryan Hall, told the Wall Street Journal in May that while he had been lucky enough to obtain 30 visas, he resented the visa program changes regardless, as they are hurting his friends. Hall, a Trump voter, told the publication that the president should fix the issue immediately.

Marisol Martinez, a 27-year-old picker from Mexico, told the Journal at the time that the issue was hurting her ability to support her father and send her two brothers to school.

“I need to come here,” she said, referring to the United States.

Some Maryland crab businesses have already shut down, bowing to the weight of growing costs. The crisis is also sparking a domino effect, leading to a decline in the number of jobs for Americans employed as dock workers, truck drivers, and related professions. Jack Brooks, president of the American Seafood Jobs Alliance, remarked in May that the situation has spiraled out of control.


“Can you imagine a lottery that decides whose business lives and whose business dies? That’s just horrible,” said Brooks.

Both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Eastern Shore Rep. Andy Harris (R) have asked Trump to raise the visa cap in order to aid the region, but so far there has been no reprieve.

Maryland isn’t alone — Virginia is also struggling under the federal cap, with its crab houses suffering too. Further north in New Hampshire, the cap is having an impact as well, hindering the state’s tourism industry and hurting local businesses.