President Bush is urging members of the U.S. Congress to resurrect a bill designed to reform the nation's immigration policies. The bill has stalled in the Senate and lawmakers are negotiating compromises they hope will put the measure back on the agenda. In the meantime, businesses that hire immigrants are anxiously following the discussions, fearing that a lack of congressional action could force their companies to close. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Cambridge, Maryland, on one small business that depends on foreign workers to survive.
For more than 100 years the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company has processed crabs from the nearby Chesapeake Bay and sold the sweet tasting meat to seafood connoisseurs throughout the United States.
Everyday watermen from Maryland's picturesque Eastern Shore maneuver their boats to the company's docks and unload thousands of crabs destined to be steamed and picked by mostly Mexican workers who have traveled thousands of kilometers to do the hard work. "Without the temporary workers we close. We close for one year, we close for good. It is the end of what we do," he said.
Jack Brooks, the owner of the seafood company, has spent years trying to hire U.S. workers to pick crabs. Picking crabs by hand is the best and most efficient method of removing meat from the hard-shelled crustaceans.
It is a tedious job that requires workers to sit in a metal chair for up to nine hours a day, lasts only eight months a year and pays about 15-thousand dollars for the entire season.
Brooks says most local people prefer to work elsewhere. "I would love to employ our domestic workers here. Just have the local folks come work, like the old days, but with all the opportunities they are just not here, they are not here and available," he said.
Now Brooks spends much of his time filing paper work with state and national labor officials and the Department of Homeland Security.
They must approve the immigration applications for workers like Olga Gonzales, who left her four-year-old daughter and aging parents behind in Mexico to work at the seafood company. "It is very hard to find work where she lives in Mexico and it is very, very little money. Next to nothing," she said.
Thirty-two-year-old Consulo Martenez leaves her family behind in Mexico because she can make between 70 and 100-dollars per day picking crabs.
She sends most of the money home to feed and clothe her two children and elderly grandmother. "We no can find good job in Mexico. We find this place and we try to make some money for the family, to support the family. In Mexico it is too hard because sometime people get sick and we don't have money to go to the hospital. We no can find a lot of money over there, so we come here," she said.
The Mexican immigrants are hired by the seafood company under a guest worker program that U.S. Senators voted to reduce in size and then eliminate after five years.
Those votes appeared to upset the delicate bipartisan balance behind the legislation and soon after the bill was pulled from the agenda.
Jack Brooks' son, 28-year-old Clay Brooks, who represents the fifth generation of his family to work in the seafood business, says immigration reform is needed soon or he and his father's 100 Mexican workers will be looking for new jobs. "We need it. It is more important than anything right now. You will have a lot of small businesses collapse. A lot of people would be upset, devastated, if this does not go through," he said.
The immigration measure would increase U.S. border security while providing a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
Jack Brooks says the temporary guest worker provision must be included in the legislation. "It is critical. We hang in the balance of what the folks in Washington decide to do, and if it is not favorable or kind to us, we burn, we are done, we close," he said.
Expensive, waterfront homes have replaced many of the old crab houses on Maryland's Eastern Shore and the Brooks family fears that soon an entire culture and traditional way of life may be lost.
The fate of this small business and its Mexican workers is now in the hands of lawmakers in Washington.