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Guest Worker Program Bridges a Gap in America’s Crab Industry

Consuelo Martinez is one of approximately 800 Mexicans working in the Chesapeake Bay's crab processing plants -- just two hours away from the nation's capital.

She says she earns more here than in Mexico. "What I make here in one day, in Mexico I can get for one week."

They are here on temporary visas, which allow them to live and work in the United States while crabs are in season. Most make between $50 and $80 U.S. a day, the same rate that the American workers get.

American Sissy Cephas, who has worked as a crab picker for the last 25 years, says she is happy to have the help. "I don't have a problem with it. If they weren't here we wouldn't be working. So that's how I feel about it."

They wouldn't be working because the U.S. seafood industry has been under siege by cheap imports from Asia and Latin America, where workers earn three to five dollars a day. In the 1990s there were 50 companies in the crab industry here. Today there are fewer than 20.

Jack Brooks, owner of the JW Clayton seafood processing company says in this intensely competitive environment, the cheap labor imported from Mexico is what is keeping this industry alive. "We lost a lot of markets to the imports and if you just say, 'Hey you can't have these workers anymore,' It'll just, we'll die with that. We'll die with that."

President Bush's proposal to expand the temporary guest worker program has run into criticism from both advocates and opponents of immigration.

Bay Buchanan, with the anti-immigration group Team America Pac, says the president's plan would impose huge costs on local communities. "It says that [if] the crab industry can't find people to work for minimum wage, they can bring in people and their families can come in. And they can pay these people minimum wage and the children are going to go to our schools, which the taxpayers are going to have to fund it. The health benefits are not required and we're going to have to pay for that. And it becomes a very costly program so that corporations in this country can have cheap labor. We should not have to pay for their cheap labor."

Immigration rights groups say the proposal does not go far enough in giving migrant workers equal rights. In reality the guest worker program in the crab industry is a compromise.

Workers like Rosalina Pantoja have to leave their families behind, so they do not have equal rights. But they do not require social services paid for by taxpayers. “Sometimes it is a little uncomfortable because we leave our families far away. But it is also somewhat comfortable because one has possibilities to send home a little more to live better in Mexico.”

But they are in the U.S. legally. They pay taxes and have the same rights as all legal immigrants -- until November when the crabs hibernate for the winter and the guest workers must return to Mexico.