Migrant Crab Picker Visa Program Needs Overhaul

Eastern Shore crab picking houses are increasingly relying on immigrant women who are often forced to pay foreign recruiters for low-paying jobs in isolated rural areas with poor housing, according to a report by American University and an immigrant rights group. The report calls for changes in the visa program used by the workers.

The visa program ties the women to the job for which they were recruited and does not allow them to work elsewhere, giving them little time to leave the country if they lose their job. The arrangement puts them in a compromised position and leaves them reluctant to speak out about working conditions or other issues, the authors conclude.

The report, adding to the debate over demands for national immigration reform, is based on interviews with more than 40 migrant workers in the United States and Mexico since 2008. It was produced by the International Human Rights Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law and the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., a migrant worker advocacy group.

Migrant pickers are paid by the pound, earning typically between $2.00 and $2.25 a pound, with those who cannot pick fast enough often sent home, the authors said. The report calls for changes to the H-2B visa program so workers are not tied to one employer. That visa program is for companies that cannot find Americans willing to work as temporary seasonal laborers.

The report said changes to the program “will allow workers to leave abusive working conditions and still benefit from employment in the United States.” Other recommendations in the report include extending minimum wage and overtime protections to seafood workers, bilingual outreach efforts, educating migrant workers before each season about their rights and sanctions against employers who use recruiters that charge improper fees.

Bill Wright, a spokesman for the federal Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services, issued a statement defending the program. “We have not read the report; but, we can say that the H-2B program is administered with fairness and professionalism,” the statement reads. “In fact, we streamlined the procedures for the H-2B program in a final rule in December 2008 (complementing the Labor Department’s rule). That rule encourages and facilitates the lawful employment of foreign workers and provides important protections to both U.S. and foreign workers to enhance the integrity of the H-2B program.”

Hundreds of women are brought each year to Maryland to pick crabs. Many work and live on Hooper’s Island on the lower Eastern Shore, where they depend on their employers for transportation because of the lack of public transportation. Almost all said they worked through a recruiter to get their visas and paid a fee despite laws prohibiting the fees. More than half also reported serious housing problems and payroll deductions for knives, gloves and safety equipment. Several also complained that male migrants were paid more and given more hours, while others complained older women were not treated as well as younger women, and one complained of being asked to perform sexual favors, the report said. The women are often subjected to erratic work hours due to supply problems, spending weeks without work at times.

Unlike other guest worker programs, employers are not required to provide H-2B workers with housing or guarantees about how many hours they will work. Margarita Gallegos, 55, of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, who attended a press conference in Washington at which the report was announced, said she borrowed about $800 at 15-percent interest from a recruiter for visa, travel and other expenses, working at several crab-picking houses in Maryland and Virginia between 2001 and 2003. Gallegos said she traveled three days by bus from central Mexico, arriving tired and hungry.