Shrimp industry eyes visas; Another 30,000 seasonal workers to be allowed in

Employees talk in the shade on a shrimp-boat, Thursday, March 30, 2017, at the shrimp basin in Brownsville. At that time, other crew-members have not been able to return for the coming shrimp season after Congress allowed the lapse of H-2B, creating a shortage of boat crews. The program allowed employers to temporarily hire foreign workers for seasonal work, like working aboard a shrimp boar during the Texas fishing season. (Jason Hoekema | The Brownsville Herald)

The head of the Texas Shrimp Association said it’s unclear how much a Trump administration decision allowing another 30,000 foreign seasonal workers into the United States this year will help the state’s shrimpers.

The 30,000 extra H-2B visas the government said it will issue are above the usual cap of 66,000 visas per fiscal year — 33,000 the first half and 33,000 the second half. The domestic seafood industry, seasonal hotels, landscaping companies and other businesses rely heavily on the H-2B program to fill positions, though the strong economy is making it harder than usual for employers to find enough workers.

The government’s issuance of additional visas is a response to this situation, though Hance said she’s not sure Texas shrimpers will benefit since the state’s shrimp season doesn’t start until mid-July.

“We still don’t know for sure if 30,000 is going to be enough, especially in our industry because our season falls so late in the year,” she said. “Usually we get the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, the last ones available. We’re just hoping that the 30,000 is going to be enough.”

It’s an improvement over the last two years, when the government raised the cap by only 15,000 visas each year, Hance said. This year, the 66,000 workers allowed in under the normal cap are already spoken for, she noted.

The additional visas will be granted only to returning foreign workers who have had them over the last three fiscal years, many of whom return to the United States for the same jobs each year. Most of the H-2B visa holders who work in the Texas shrimp industry, which includes processing plants as well as boats, are from Mexico and Central America.

Hance said the workers are experienced and prepared for the rigors of spending a month or more at sea aboard a trawler.

“You’re staying away from your family for 30 to 45 days,” she said. “It’s a tough sell.”

Some critics of the H-2B visa program contend that it takes jobs away from Americans, though Hance said finding U.S. citizens willing to crew shrimp boats is next to impossible, and the few that are willing often have no experience. That creates a dangerous situation because commercial fishing is extremely hazardous, she said.

A survey of shrimp fleet owners conducted in the last few years found that 96 percent of inexperienced season workers wanted off the boat in the first week, while 64 percent never finished their first 30-day trip, Hance said. Shrimp boat owners can’t keep crew members at sea against their will, though bringing them back to shore can cost thousands of dollars in lost production and fuel, she said.

“We know these (foreign workers) have experience,” Hance said. “They do their jobs, pay taxes and go back home.”

Texas’ seafood industry is very small and uses less than 1,000 workers total, though a shortage of foreign seasonal workers is crippling, she said.

“It’s costing us $1 million a day during peak season, the entire industry, all because of a handful of workers,” Hance said.

In 2015, Congress created an H-2B returning worker exemption that allowed foreign workers to return to the same jobs every year, regardless of the cap, ensuring that the seafood industry and other employers got all the workers they needed. Lawmakers failed to renew the exemption in 2016, though, so that option is off the table.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said on Monday that the additional visas are only a temporary fix and called on Congress to figure out a permanent solution.

Hance agrees.

“We’ve been fighting for a permanent fix to the program and this is still just another Band-Aid,” she said. “We were hoping for (another) returning worker exemption that would allow the workers to come over without being counted in the cap. We weren’t successful in obtaining permanent legislation, so we’re still fighting the fight on that.”