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Saturday, July 24, 2004

KRT Wire | 03/29/2004 | Cap on Immigrant Workers to Impact Many Hampton, Va.-Area Businesses

KRT Wire | 03/29/2004 | Cap on Immigrant Workers to Impact Many Hampton, Va.-Area Businesses

Daily Press, Newport News, Va. Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


Mar. 27--HAMPTON, Va. - All winter, John Graham has been drumming up business for those interested in buying crabs from him when the crab season begins April 1. Graham landed huge accounts with restaurants and groceries for his crab-processing business, Graham & Rollins in downtown Hampton.

With all the new business, Graham -- who normally employs about 80 immigrant workers to pick crabs -- said he was poised for one of the best years ever, until recently.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced last week that it was imposing the 66,000-visa cap on H-2B workers, set by Congress in 1990, and that the H-2B program was shut down because the cap had been reached.

The H-2B visa program is used by a range of industries that need unskilled laborers to shuck oysters, pick crabs, split quarry rocks, staff ski resorts, work landscaping and perform various jobs at construction sites.

For the first time, new applications for immigrant workers have been cut off, leaving numerous employers like Graham scrambling for help.

Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees visa applications, is this year now part of the Department of Homeland Security. The suspension of the H-2B program until October, when the new federal fiscal year begins, has hit many local employers hard.

Christopher Lemonds of Christopher's Lawn Service in Newport News said he's received word that his Mexican crews weren't coming this year. Lemonds began using H-2B workers in 2002.

This year, Lemonds was expecting four Mexicans from Sinaloa to arrive at the end of March. Those workers will not be coming.

"I've already gone ahead and hired domestic workers for this season, but I'm having to pay those workers $8 to $10 an hour, as opposed to what I had been paying -- around $7 an hour," Lemonds said. "This year, I'm going to be operating at a loss."

Although many industries have been hit hard by the decision to impose the cap, Libby Whitley -- president of Mid-Atlantic Solution in Lovingston and an H-2B visa program

agent who matches workers with employers -- said Virginia's seafood industry would be hit the hardest.

"This will shut down the entire industry," Whitley said. "Without these seasonal manual, unskilled workers, you can't run the business. It's the seasonal labor that permits and supports others to be employed in the same industry.

"Take crabbers, for example: Why go catch crabs if there's no one to pick them? And if you can't pick them, you don't need to buy containers for crab meat or have anyone to deliver the crab product," she explained.

As a result of the huge economic effect that the cap will have on certain industries, Whitley said, she's formed an H-2B Employers Council of H-2B employers, industry groups and program agents who represent about 25,000 annual placements.

If Congress hasn't "fixed" the problem with the cap by Easter, Whitley said, the group plans to get an emergency injunction and go before a federal judge.

"They are counting the number of H-2B visa petitions (the number of workers requested by employers) and not the number of workers who actually come to work for that employer," Whitley said. "An employer may petition for 100 workers, but maybe only 75 of those workers come. They are counting the full 100 workers that were petitioned for."

Debra Dowd, an immigration attorney for Kaufman & Canoles in Richmond, said Whitley could have a good chance proving that the count was incorrect.

"There's not a whole lot that can be done about the cap," Dowd said. "The cap is the cap, and it's been there all along. But she may have something by getting the count looked at."

Whitley said all the petitions made by March 1 in her company made it through the cap.

"It was the ones still being processed in late March -- those in food processing, seafood and hospitality -- that didn't make it and were shut out."

Meanwhile, Graham has no pickers ready to work in his crab-processing plant.

"If I could get my Mexicans here, I'd be on cloud nine," Graham said.

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