BROWNSVILLE, TX - "Buy American and hire American" is a popular slogan often said by President Donald Trump. While many Texas shrimping companies agree with the concept, they claim it's simply not realistic.
The shrimping season is kicking off Saturday with a crippled workforce.
Starting off the shrimping season, Oscar Bautista and his crew prepare their nets and tie loose ends as they gear up to sail in uncharted territory. That’s because it’s the first time in over 30 years that Bautista has had such a hard time putting together a group of shrimpers to reel in this year’s promising catch.
He says that the government is not issuing enough permits for them to be able to work in the industry.
Bautista is referring to the H-2B visa, a migrant worker permit capped yearly at 66,000 people. Half of those permits get issued between March and October. The problem is that the cap was reached within weeks by other industries in need.
Life-long shrimper Greg Londrei says that many people across the country are in the same pickle. When the government doesn’t increase the number of visas, companies say that they are left to hire inexperienced American workers who, they claim, pose a greater risk to their bottom line.
“There’s many more American jobs that are connected to the boats here on land than there are on the boats themselves. The problem is filling the positions on the boats,” said Londrei, who estimates a mere 2 to 5 percent retention rate with domestic workers.
The people who sign up to sail for 30 to 45 straight days but can’t handle the job force the boat to return early. That costs the business about $4,000 in production for every night the boat is not shrimping.
“The boat, the company, the people on the land, this is our livelihoods!” Londrei said.
The worker shortage is only one of many issues undermining the shrimping industry; from gas prices to market value to competition from imported shrimp, as Andrea Hance with the Texas Shrimping Association pointed out. She noted that about 90 percent of all shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported, sometimes from countries with questionable practices.
“This all ties back to how that affects the price that we’re able to get for our shrimp, which also affects the price or the amount of money that we’re able to pay our crew,” she said.
Hance believes that there is a big misconception about migrant workers, adding that public opinion and politics are starting to make everyone here feel like fish in troubled waters.
In late May, Congress authorized the Department of Homeland Security to decide how many more visas will be issued. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services says that the announcement may come at the end of July. But even if the decision was made today, shrimpers here say it could take well over a month to get those migrant workers on a boat.
By then, it may be too little too late.
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