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Immigration Legislation Threatens Businesses that Depend on Seasonal Labor


Efforts are currently underway to revive stalled immigration legislation in the U.S. Senate and bring it to a vote before the congressional recess in early July. In the meantime, businesses that depend on seasonal foreign workers are anxiously following events. Jeff Swicord reports on one small business in Cambridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

For three generations the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company has processed crabs from the Chesapeake Bay and sold the sweet meat throughout the United States.

Everyday during crabbing season, the bay's watermen bring thousands of crabs to the company's dock where they are steamed and picked by mostly Mexican workers who enter the U.S. through a legal guest worker program. Jack Brooks now owns the seafood company started by his greatgrandfather.

"Without the temporary workers, we close,” says Brooks. “And [if] we close for one year, we close for good. It is the end of what we do."

Years ago, the Brooks family hired seasonal American workers to pick crabmeat from April through November. But as the town of Cambridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore grew, so did the job opportunities. Most of the American workers have moved on to better paying year-round jobs.

"I would love to employ domestic workers and have the local folks come and work like the old days,” adds Brooks. “But with all the opportunities, they are just not here."

Each year, Jack Brooks works through the four to five month process of documenting his foreign workers with state, federal, and Homeland Security officials.

They must approve the immigration application for workers like Olga Gonzalez. She leaves her four-year-old daughter and aging parents in Mexico and travels to Cambridge to work for five to eight months of the year.

"It is very hard to find work where I live in Mexico and it is for very little money," says Gonzalez.

32-year-old Consuelo Martinez has made the trip from Mexico to the Maryland Eastern shore for nine consecutive years. She says she can earn $70 to $100 a day picking crabs, more than she can earn in a week in Mexico.

"It is hard because sometimes we get sick, we don't have money to go to the hospital, we need to pay for the house, and we can not find any money over there so we come here," says Martinez.

The Mexican workers are hired under a guest worker program that the U.S. Senate is debating whether to reduce and eventually eliminate. That upsets Jack Brooks who says the so-called H-2B guest worker program is critical for his business to survive.

"I will tell you that the H-2B program that we have is a great program that works,” explains Brooks. “It's a legal program, it is a model program for many others that is critical. You know we hang in the balance of what the folks in Washington decide to do."

Expensive condos now line Cambridge's inner harbor where crab picking houses once were. The Brooks family is concerned that the culture of the Chesapeake Bay and their way of life may soon be lost.

The fate of this small business and its Mexican workers is in the hands of lawmakers in Washington.

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