Sherbin Collette is the mayor of the Henderson, Louisiana, a small town in the heart of Louisiana crawfish country. He is a commercial fisherman who also serves on the Louisiana Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board. And he has deep concerns about the sustainability of the crawfish industry in the absence of sensible immigration reform.
Collette estimates that Henderson and the surrounding area are home to some 300,000 acres of crawfish farms, farms that have supported generations of Louisianans. Those farmers sell many of their crawfish to processing plants, where the crustaceans are carefully boiled, peeled, deveined, and packaged. It is strenuous work that Americans no longer seem interested in doing, Collette says. “You’re standing up for eight hours a day,” he says. “The older crowd who used to do it have now all pretty much retired. And the younger crowd, they don’t want nothing to do with it. So it’s important to us that we have immigrants coming in to do the work.”
Without immigrants, we wouldn’t have crawfish season, it’s that critical.
For years, seafood processors all along the Louisiana coast — and across America — have relied on temporary, foreign-born workers to do the job. These workers enter the country when the work begins and return home to their families when the season ends.
Immigration policy, however, has not kept up with the country’s growing demand for workers. Seafood processors must obtain an H-2B visa, a non-immigrant visa for temporary labor, for each foreign worker, for each season. But there are not nearly enough H-2B visas to meet the needs of American businesses. The federal government caps the total number of H-2B visas issued — visas shared by a multitude of industries — at 66,000 per year, divided into two six-month periods of 33,000 visas each. Demand is so high that in 2018 the federal government received requests for 81,008 H-2B visas on the first day of one semi-annual application period alone.
“We’re at a point now where the processing plants can’t get enough peelers,” Collette says. When this happens, processing plants buy fewer crawfish from U.S. farmers, and less domestic product reaches U.S. store shelves. “Without immigrants, we wouldn’t have crawfish season, it’s that critical.”
The problem is not limited to Louisiana. Widen the lens, and the effect on the U.S. economy is profound. The seafood industry employs more than 200,000 American workers and contributes $38.5 billion to annual U.S. gross domestic product. U.S. seafood processors alone generated $9.3 billion in revenue in 2015. Even then, the industry has room to grow; more than 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume is already either caught or processed abroad.
If processors could not hire foreign workers, “it would shut down the crawfish industry,” says Collette. “They are hard workers. The plants are hot and they can take the heat. Nothing is given to them. They work hard for their money.”
Collette would also like to see immigration reform that gives employers more control over when their foreign-born employees can arrive to start work. Under the current system, processors must apply for their H-2B visas months before the start date, which means months before they know exactly when, and how much, seafood will be available from farmers.
“You can’t guarantee those dates. Mother nature determines that,” Collette says. “If it’s really cold, the season is delayed. So sometimes we have workers coming in and there’s nothing for them to do but they still get paid. And then when they leave, there’s still a lot of crawfish left. It puts a hardship on the businesses and farmers.”
In the end, if immigration policy does not adapt to employer needs, it is American consumers who will feel the pinch, Collette says. When he was a boy, crawfish sold for a nickel a pound, he says. Now it sells for between $3.50 and $6.00. a pound. “Rich people didn’t eat them before,” he says. “They called them mudbugs and thought they weren’t good to eat. Ironically, now the only people who can afford them is the rich people. The poor people can’t hardly afford them.”