BROWNSVILLE — When Donald Trump announced on June 22 that he was suspending new work visas for foreign workers at least through the end of the year, Andrea Hance experienced a wave of anxiety.
The executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association said it’s already a struggle to get enough foreign seasonal workers to adequately crew shrimp boats every year because of the federal government’s annual cap on H-2B visas. Now the fear was that — despite an “essential industry” designation —the state’s shrimp industry wouldn’t be able to get any foreign workers, which would mean no fishing and no income, since the pool of American citizens willing and able to do the dangerous, backbreaking work of shrimping is extremely shallow.
“ We were just kind of scared that it was going to get overlooked,” Hance said. “And over the last probably two to three months we were just not sure if we were going to get our workers or not. It changed every day. It depended on who you talked to. At first we were told, no, you’re not going to get them.”
Phone calls flew back and forth between TSA’s attorney, lobbyist and the government, which finally released a memo clarifying that the seafood industry, including the Texas shrimp industry, was among sectors considered essential to maintaining the U.S. food supply and therefore exempt from Trump’s visa ban. Seasonal hospitality, forestry and landscaping workers weren’t so lucky. Nor were computer programmers and other nonseasonal information technology workers from other countries typically allowed to work in the United States with an H-1B visa.
The administration’s move prompted immediate criticism from U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Thomas Donohue, who argued that the ban will only cause further damage to the economy.
“ Putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses and other workers won’t help our country,” he said. “It will hold us back. Restrictive changes to our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth and reduce job creation.”
The Brownsville-Port Isabel shrimp fleet will deploy, though, and fleet owners will continue struggling to find enough workers under the cap, which limits H-2B visas to 66,000 per year — 33,000 the first six months and 33,000 the last six months. Hance said the timing doesn’t work in the industry’s favor, and past efforts seeking to adjust it haven’t panned out.
“ The issue for us is our season falls later in the year than most other industries,” she said. “By the time we need our workers, basically the cap’s already been met. I know the second cap, the second 33,000, that’s already maxed out usually by March, and we don’t need our guys until around June or July. So in a lot of cases we’ve just been simply shut out because of the timing of our season.”
Until four or five years ago, shrimp industry H-2B workers were exempt from the cap and boats had all the crew they needed. The exemption was allowed to expire when it became too hot politically, with some arguing that the exemption deprived U.S. citizens of job opportunities. The problem with that argument, according to Hance, is that it’s virtually impossible to find U.S. citizens who can handle being at sea on a shrimp trawler for a month or more at a time.
“ This year has just been a roller coaster again,” she said. “TSA has so many issues that we’re dealing with. This probably takes up 30 to 40 percent of my time. We’re going on like the fourth year of this. We’re going to run into the same situation next year.”
She noted that Trump announced the ban after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and two other Republican senators sent a letter to the White House in May calling for a halt to H-1B, H-2B and other types of visas, arguing that high school and college graduates and not than imported, foreign workers should be given “access to seasonal nonagricultural work.”
“ Of course I had to send a letter back (saying) would you put a high school kid on a fishing vessel? It’s the second most dangerous job in the United States,” Hance said. “Send them out to sea for 30 days knowing that there’s a 97 or 98 percent chance that that person wants off that boat within the first week? Would you do that?”
Fleet owners won’t expose themselves to that kind of liability, she said. At any rate, TSA hopes to use its essential-industry designation to leverage a permanent exemption from the H-2B cap, like the one the fish roe industry for whatever reason managed to secure, even if it’s a particular tough sell right now due to the unemployment crisis. But Hance said the state’s seafood industry uses so few H-2B workers compared to other seasonal industries that it barely shows up on a pie chart.
“ I think in the state of Texas, regarding the seafood industry specifically, we use less than 1,000 (H-2B) workers,” she said. “Down here in Brownsville we probably use, I’m going to say maybe 250 to 300 workers.”
Lobbying for a change in federal law requires a lobbyist, meanwhile, and lobbyists don’t come cheap.
“ We’re probably one of the most involved (industry) organizations across the Gulf coast, but we’re also one of the smallest and least funded,” Hance said. “What I have to do is get a good estimate on how much it’s going to cost and then I need to go around to see if I can raise money.”
Per usual, she’ll have to hit up the small group of large fleet owners willing to dig into their pockets to support lobbying efforts, she said.
“ We literally have guys that, their livelihood depends on these (H-2B) workers but they won’t donate one penny to try and help lobby it,” Hance said. “There’s only a handful of guys who actually understand how the process works and so we’re asking a lot from them money wise, but it needs to happen and I think this year is the best year, and we need to start pushing on this right now.”
In the meantime, TSA asks consumers to check shrimp packaging labels and ask restaurants where their shrimp originates to make sure they’re getting wild-caught Gulf shrimp and not a foreign import, while anxiously awaiting definitive word on the next round of H-2B visas from the Department of Homeland Security.
“ We are just basically waiting on pins and needles to get that final approval so the guys from Mexico or Honduras or wherever they’re coming from, basically they just need to cross over and come to work,” Hance said. “We’re close, but we’ll know when we get them. That’s about it. It’s so hard to run a business like that.”