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Without Migrant Workers, Texas Shrimp Trawlers Forced to Tie Up Boats

In 2007, Andrea Hance and her husband decided to buy a shrimp boat. The couple had stable careers in South Texas — he as a crop insurance agent and she as the owner of a mortgage company. But they were looking for a new challenge and were taken with the romantic notion of watching their boat pull into shore with a haul of fresh seafood. But it wasn’t until they actually sent their boat out for the first time that they started to wise up. “We’d just spent $175,000 on the boat, and $50,000 on gear, and $30,000 on fuel. And then we put a crew of three people on the boat who we didn’t really know. And I looked at my husband and said, ‘What the hell did we just do?’ We never realized that this industry is as risky and tough as they come.”

Shrimping is one of the most dangerous professions in the country. This means that the 550 commercial shrimping boats in Texas depend upon qualified workers — not just to bring in a profitable haul, but to ensure the safety of everyone on board. However, according to Hance, who now serves as executive director of the Texas Shrimp Association, U.S. immigration policy has made it almost impossible for shrimpers to hire these workers. And that is threatening a $700 million industry and hundreds of American jobs. “Finding people who are willing and able to work on these boats is our number one issue,” she says.

It’s hard to imagine those workers being taken away from us. If that happens, it will collapse our industry.

The Texas Shrimp Association works hard to promote shrimping jobs to Americans. “We work with the Texas Workforce Commission, hold job fairs, run social media campaigns, post signs everywhere. But we just cannot find U.S. citizens to go out on these boats,” says Hance. She recently surveyed the shrimp trawlers who apply for foreign guest workers, to better understand why they need the help.  What she found was telling. During the 2017 shrimping season, which ran from mid-July through October, 64 percent of the U.S.-born workers these trawlers had hired — 95 percent of whom lacked any experience — quit in the first week, and 96 percent quit in the first 30 days. Hance understands why. Shrimping voyages keep workers away from their families for 30 to 45 days at a time and involve demanding physical labor that can lead to serious injury. “Every year a couple of people get their leg taken off in a winch,” she says. “Every year, one or two fall overboard and aren’t recovered.”

Time and again, the people who prove their skills out on the Gulf of Mexico are temporary foreign workers from Latin America. “These returning workers are accustomed to the industry, know the safety regulations, get paid and go home,” says Hance. She estimates that shrimpers need fewer than 1,000 guest workers each season to keep the industry running. At first glance, the 66,000 annual cap on these visas — called H-2Bs — would seem to allow for plenty. But in 2015, employers across a spectrum of industries requested more than 126,000, according to New American Economy. And because H-2B visas are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, shrimpers in particular lose out. The industry typically needs H-2B workers later than many others, so by the time boat owners are allowed to apply, most of the visas are gone. This past year, shrimpers got lucky. At the last minute, the government agreed to release an extra 15,000 H-2B visas. “But they said they won’t do it again next year,” says Hance. “And it’s hard to imagine those workers being taken away from us. If that happens, it will collapse our industry.”

Hance says that bringing in temporary foreign workers keeps Americans employed. “We’re having to lay off U.S. workers, because without foreign workers on those boats, we can’t go out,” she says. In fact, every day that a boat is tied up costs the owner roughly $5,000. That can quickly put a shrimp trawler out of business. Hance herself has experienced the strain. She did not attempt to hire foreign workers in 2017, because her captain claimed to have Americans who wanted the work. But after the first 30-day trip, the U.S.-born workers quit. Hance and her husband lost around $35,000.

“I had a politician ask why I couldn’t just hire one of the many unemployed people hanging around Houston street corners,” she says. “And I said, ‘Sir, are you willing to put this person who you know nothing about on your $400,000 boat, in one of the deadliest industries? Are you willing to jeopardize the safety of crew?’ ” After that, the politician said he understood the need for more H-2B visas.

Ultimately, Hance wants immigration reform in order to ensure the health of her industry and its U.S.-born workforce. She would like to see the cap on the number of H-2B visas raised. She would also like to see reform that permanently allows shrimpers to hire the foreign workers who return year after year and not have them count toward that cap. She warns that failing to enact these policy changes will not only put American shrimpers out of businesses, it will have a negative economic impact on processing plants all along the Gulf Coast, as well as on the industries those plants support. It could also put consumer health at risk, by making it easier for foreign countries to send cheap, unregulated seafood into our restaurants and grocery stores.

“Most people can’t get over idea that we’re not able to find Americans to work on our boats,” she says. “But most people have no idea what’s involved. For U.S. workers, it’s almost a zero retention rate.”

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