By Shakil Hamid, July 24, 2020
Maryland’s economy is in free-fall. Over 600,000 of the state’s three million workers have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus struck.
Despite this widespread joblessness, Maryland’s leaders have pressed to bring in more foreign workers. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has repeatedly urged the federal government to issue more guest-worker visas, especially for our seafood industry, which for many generations depended on locals.
In contrast, President Donald Trump just signed an executive order suspending the entry of most new foreign guest workers through the end of 2020 despite opposition from Silicon Valley CEOs and other corporate lobbyists who yield tremendous influence in D.C. However, a short-term solution will not fix a long-standing problem.
I harbor no hostility towards immigrants. In fact, I’m an immigrant myself. I came to this country legally from Bangladesh in hopes of achieving the American dream. And I have nothing but empathy for others who come here in search of a better life.
But I also have empathy for my fellow Marylanders who have lost their livelihoods. It’s time to prioritize the needs of these citizens and legal permanent residents by ensuring they don’t have to compete for scarce jobs with new workers coming from abroad.
Earlier this year, Governor Hogan and Congressman Andy Harris (R), who represents the Eastern Shore, called on the Trump administration to issue additional guest-worker visas for Maryland’s crab-picking industry. Even in March, after the coronavirus crisis had already begun, Congressman Harris called the supposed shortage of these H-2B visas – which businesses use to bring in seasonal workers for non-agricultural jobs like construction, landscaping, and meat and seafood processing – a “debilitating issue for the economy.”
And the Governor warned in January that “local seafood processors will be unable to open for business” if they can’t hire guest workers.
These claims are fear mongering, pure and simple. There has never been a shortage of Americans willing to fill such jobs. Fifty-two percent of seafood hand packers and packagers were born here in America. Many of the remaining 48 percent are naturalized citizens like me. Only a relatively small percentage are guest workers.
And especially now, as the unemployment rate soars to levels not seen since the Great Depression, it’s ludicrous to claim that businesses can’t find enough Americans.
In reality, seafood processors and other businesses clamor for these visas because guest workers will accept lower wages. The average laborer in the meat, poultry, and fish cutting and trimming sector earns $11.39 per hour – but H-2B guest workers in that industry earn just $8.25 per hour, according to an Economic Policy Institute review of federal data from 2012. That means employers increase their profit by $3.14 per hour, a 28 percent discount.
Marylanders face competition not only from guest workers, but also from illegal immigrants. Unscrupulous businesses often hire these vulnerable laborers and treat them terribly. Nearly four in 10 illegal aliens have been paid less than minimum wage.
Too often, Maryland officials turn a blind eye to this problem – or worse, actively abet it. Earlier this year, lawmakers introduced several “sanctuary” bills that would have forbid local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Such policies merely encourage more illegal immigration, thus perpetuating a cycle of abuse and wage theft that hurts legal and illegal workers alike. The bills didn’t pass, but lawmakers will surely reintroduce them next year.
Maryland’s legal residents – both native-born and immigrant – deserve better. In other states, elected officials have already stepped up to protect their citizens.
Many states require some or all businesses to use E-Verify, a free online tool that assesses whether newly hired laborers are authorized to work in the United States. Just across the Mason Dixon Line, for instance, all Pennsylvania construction firms must start using E-Verify this fall, thanks to a bill passed by the Keystone State’s Republican legislature and signed into law by its Democrat governor. There’s no reason Maryland shouldn’t follow Pennsylvania’s example.
President Trump did the right thing when he suspended new H-2B and other guest worker visas during the pandemic. That will go a long way to relieve pressure on Maryland’s struggling workers.
Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders have lost their livelihoods. In a crisis like this, it’s insane that our state officials wanted to continue allowing guest-workers and illegal immigrants to take jobs that’d otherwise go to Maryland’s citizens and legal permanent residents.
Shakil Hamid is a volunteer with Help Save Maryland.