And here is another case where Mexicans are not taking jobs that Americans want. Mexicans are taking jobs that Americans refuse to take. Americans expect decent pay, benefits, and air conditioning! How many of you want to get out into the hot fields to pick tomatoes or strawberries, or stay at sea on a shrimp boat for weeks at a time? Not me! But Pedro and Jose will!
Expiration of H-2B exemption puts industry in bind
The Texas shrimp industry, struggling for years
against high fuel prices and cheap foreign imports,
faces a new crisis: a major shortage of the
temporary foreign workers boat owners and
processing plants depend on to operate.
The shortage is the result of Congress not
renewing the H-2B Returning Worker Program
when it expired at the end of September.
Congress created the exemption in 2015 to help
industries like seafood, landscaping and
hospitality fill essential jobs.
The exemption was established after the
government in 2005 instituted an annual cap of
66,000 H-2B foreign worker visas, in response
to a surge in H-2B applications from employers
since the program started during the late 1980s.
The cap is divided equally among the two
halves of the fiscal year — 33,000 the first half
and 33,000 the last.
As part of the H-2B application process,
the government requires employers first to
advertise the jobs to U.S. workers. In the case
of the shrimp industry, however, it’s very difficult
to find U.S. workers willing to do the work.
The Rio GrandeValley’s shrimp industry
increasingly has had to rely on shrimp boat
workers from Mexico, who tend to have
experience and in some cases have worked
on the same U.S. boats for two decades or more.
Now, though, everything has ground to a halt
since the government announced in March
that the H-2B visa cap for the second half of
2017 had been reached, leaving the
Brownsville-Port Isabel shrimp fleet with a
drastic shortage of crews just when it needs
them to prepare for the start of the 2017 Texas
shrimp season, which happens in mid-July.
The current season closes May 15, though
most boats are docked for maintenance because
shrimp harvests are typically meager this time
of the year.
Lee Caddell, a Port Isabel-based shrimp boat
owner, said his company’s fleet of nine boats
has used 18 or 19 H-2B workers who return
every year. If the exemption isn’t renewed, it
will be a huge blow to the business, he said.
“If this isn’t fixed, several of those boats will
not fish because we will not have crews for
them,” Caddell said. He said the idea that H-2B
deprives Americans of jobs in the shrimp
industry is “a crock.”
“They don’t exist,” he said. “Americans don’t
want to do these jobs. Most shrimpers up and
down the coast rely on this.” Caddell said the
returning workers “cause no problems
whatsoever” and are the last group that should
be locked out.
He said he finds it especially galling that out of
the problems the shrimp industry faces, this
one is so fixable. “They pay their taxes, they
break no laws and these guys are honestly doing
jobs we can’t find anyone else to do,” Caddell
said. “It does not cost Americans jobs, period.
If we can find Americans that want to come
and do these jobs, then we would be thrilled
to have them.”
Ida Rivera, a bookkeeper with Caddell’s company,
Bodden & Caddell Inc., said another reason it’s
hard to fill shrimp jobs with U.S workers is the
long weeks crews have to spend at sea, plus the
fact that they’re not eligible for benefits and can’t
file for unemployment.
In the rare instance when a U.S. citizen has
responded to a job announcement, he hasn’t
followed through, she said.
“I had one guy,” Rivera said. “I called him.
He didn’t show up.”
Jorge Gonzalez Jr., a Brownsville-based shrimp
fleet operator, comes from a shrimping family
and has been around shrimp boats since he was
3 years old. Many of the Mexican shrimpers
who come over on visas each year also come
from shrimping families, and that experience
is valuable to fleet owners, Gonzalez said.
“They’re not scared of hard work,” he said.
“They come to make money, and better
themselves and better their families’ situation.
It’s a plus for them, and it’s a plus for us.”
Gonzalez said he loves what he does for a living
and thinks Gulf shrimp is the best tasting in the
world, though he admitted it’s going to be a tough
season if the returning worker exemption isn’t
reinstated. A manpower shortage cuts into how
much shrimp can be harvested, which is obviously
damaging to business, he said.
“Some (boats) won’t be able to fish,” Gonzalez
said. “We’re going to try to get out there, but
we might just have a skeleton crew.”
Andrea Hance, executive director of the Texas
Shrimp Association, said her organization has
teamed up with the “big guys,” Maryland-based
American Seafood Jobs Alliance, to press the
issue in Congress with a louder voice.
“It’s probably one of the most complicated issues
that I’ve been in the middle of,” she said.
Hance, also a shrimp boat owner, said the
returning worker exemption has become
“tangled up perception-wise with immigration.”
Despite what some people believe, fleet owners
aren’t passing over U.S. workers so they can get
foreign workers for less money, she said.
Hance said boat owners pay $1,500 to $2,000
for each H-2B worker who is approved and have
to deal with a mountain of paperwork. The
occasional U.S. worker who is hired for a shrimp
job usually doesn’t last, she said.
“We have to spend our money to train them,
and less than 1 percent of the U.S. workers that
we train to put on boats will make a full trip,”
she said. “They’ll want off the boat in one or
H-2B workers account for about 40 percent of
Texas shrimp industry employees, she said.
“This is probably one of the most devastating
things we’ve ever been faced with,” Hance said.
Local shrimpers are organizing to lobby their
political representatives on the issue. A group
of representatives with the industry met with
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela on March 31 in
Brownsville to present a petition. Vela said
after the meeting that he had just recently
learned of the problem and isn’t sure whether
political opposition or simple neglect is why
the exemption wasn’t renewed, though he
intends to find out.
Vela said he signed an appropriations letter to
try to get the exemption language back in, and
a few days ago put his name on a bill to solve
the problem. He said he’s been talking to
colleagues with constituents affected by the
issue — Rep. Blake Farenthold for instance —
to try to get their support for the exemption.
That effort will continue when Vela returns to
the Capitol next week, he said.