In spring 2018, I lived with Doña Lucia—an H-2B visa migrant crab picker, or a jaibera, I interviewed and befriended on Maryland’s Eastern Shore several years prior—at her home in rural Hidalgo, Mexico. Her unassuming concrete house had recently been painted a bright peacock blue inside and out, and a stream of morning light poured through the window. She served us some café de olla and placed a carton of milk next to my coffee mug. Then, sitting down at her dining room table, Doña Lucia gestured for me to move closer and spoke in a grave voice, “Look, I just received a WhatsApp message from Yolanda [a coworker of hers who lived in Ciudad del Sol]. We have a problem with the visas. It looks like only a few of the crab houses are getting them.” I knew that Doña Lucia had just paid off the addition on her house and purchased several new appliances on credit. Not going back would take a financial toll on her family. She sighed, “If it is not one thing, it is another. Así es la vida en el otro lado.” (That’s the way life is on the other side, in the United States). I quickly went to my smartphone but struggled to find any breaking news related to the H-2B nonagricultural visa, the one on which Doña Lucia and the other migrant women I came to know during my research depended.
Moments of uncertainty like this are representative of the experiences of transnational Mexican migrant women who live and work under the auspices of the temporary United States H-2B visa program and their transnational social networks. For eight months a year, many of these women labor as seasonal crab pickers in rural and isolated areas in Maryland’s economically and historically significant crab and oyster industries. Anthropologist Thurka Sangaramoorthy shows how even with tenuous temporary legal status that binds them to their employer, instability and liminality surround the lives of crab workers. This uncertainty is brought to light by the various forms of violence and retraumatization that routinely add to a life full of what I identify in my research as problemas cronicas, or chronic problems laden with social and economic uncertainty on either side of their migratory journey. Even with these complications, migrant women like Doña Lucia find forms of reciprocity and care to address the chronic problems that surround them. The diversity of migratory patterns and the experience that comes with it support various strategies of care that sustain and maintain forms of communication and cooperation (see for example, Boehm 2012; Parreñas 2005). Through circuits of care, jaiberas, health workers, and employers in the United States and Mexico connect, support one another, and cope with the failures of an exploitative system that produces uncertainty and precarity in labor migration.
Worker visa crisis
In early 2018, only half of Maryland’s 20 licensed crab houses acquired the visas required to operate at peak production. In previous years, visas were awarded on a “returning worker” exemption that issued visas on a first-come-first-served basis with preference given to repeat applicants, similar to a seniority system. It was a predictable process and allowed the crab houses to quickly determine and recruit their staffing needs for each season. In 2018, however, the Trump administration discontinued this practice and implemented a lottery system to award visas. With the crab season approaching, this new system left workers, some of whom had traveled to the Eastern Shore for decades, unsure if they would receive a work visa and left the crab houses uncertain if they would receive the workers they needed to operate.
Activating circuits of care
As I scrolled through the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website looking for any information that might provide some context, Doña Lucia interrupted to tell me she had heard again from Doña Yolanda whose daughter was a secretary at the main H-2A and H-2B visa recruitment office several hours away in San Louis Potosí, Mexico—a significant hub in what sociologist Rubén Hernández‐León identifies as the Mexico‒United States migratory system. She knew when visas would be issued and would let her mother and network of friends know when the visas would be available. As a form of care, Doña Yolanda then took the time to send WhatsApp messages her various coworkers and several line managers in Maryland, alerting them of the visa denials.
Doña Lucia reminded me that Jason, a crab house manager I knew and son of a crab house owner, had visited his former nanny and now employee, Daniela, a few months earlier at her home in Mexico. Doña Lucia suggested I reach out to Jason to see if he had any information about the visas and what they needed to do in the meantime. She made sure that I contacted her patron, or crab house owner, as well as several other English-speaking friends to let them know what was happening. The circuits of care extended in many directions to include crab owners, managers, and health and social service providers.
I sat down to make phone calls as instructed. After several hours spent contacting her managers and coworkers, I took the shuttle van down the mountain to see another jaibera who would activate her own care circuit in a different form.
One town over, I visited Doña Martha, a 55-year-old jaibera who did not receive her usual H-2B visa and stayed behind in Hidalgo. She spoke about enduring the psychological trauma of not being able to do anything about her family’s economic situation—yet sitting at home was not an option. “I’ve spent so much of my adult life desperate to find work that could help my family. Now that this is happening I tried to cry but found no more tears. I had to shake myself out of this depression and reach out to family and friends who lived in the United States to help me out with the costs at home.” Her son-in-law’s brother in Houston was able to send enough to pay for three months’ worth of electricity, gas, and food for her family. Attempting to find alternate forms of cash flow or receiving loans through these circuits was crucial to survival as various family members had serious health issues. As the main breadwinner Doña Martha had to take care of a grandson with a severe milk allergy, a bedridden mother with bedsores that needed constant attention, and her own chronic asthma and ongoing bronchial infections.
Doña Martha continued to activate her circuit of care through contacting Doña Carla, a longtime friend who once worked as a jaibera and later decided to overstay her visa with her husband. Doña Carla now owned her own modest two-bedroom home and worked a full-time job at a local restaurant in Maryland. She remembered how difficult it was to work for such a low wage, so she regularly offered low-cost or free rides to jaiberas and helped them and other struggling migrant women find other forms of employment in local hospitals, hotels, and the food service industry. In turn, many women would gift their time to clean Doña Martha’s home or offer used and new furniture, clothing, and household items to pass along to her or others who might need a helping hand. Using masa they were able to buy in bulk, Doña Carla and her husband sold breakfast tacos and chicken tamales out of her kitchen to raise funds for several of her friends in Mexico, including Martha. Together they could easily make 500 tamales in a few days and over a period of a few months they sent several thousand dollars to friends in need and to Doña Martha to help her invest in a small rotisserie chicken stand in Hidalgo. This seemingly small monetary gesture and the understanding that many people were involved in looking out for her well-being helped Doña Martha withstand the psychological toll and economic uncertainty for over six months.
Another jaibera, Margarita, sent numerous panicked messages through Facebook to the crab house manager named Tommy who lived next door to her crab house patron in Maryland to see if additional visas had been issued. Her daughter needed tuition money to keep her place at a university in Hidalgo and had already been left out of the semester’s classes. Tommy agreed to loan Margarita the tuition and even wired a cash gift to her and other coworkers for groceries and living expenses. Later that fall, Tommy told me that “Margarita made me so many dinners in the years before the visa crisis, I was just paying her back for her kindness, really.” When Margarita finally received her first check in early October, she was able to repay her coworker for the tuition.
Stu, a crab house owner, considered moving his base of operations to Mexico if he did not receive the visas needed for the next crab season. “He was already crunching numbers to figure out how to do this. He’s dead serious,” his accountant told me. Stu explained, “You know, I wouldn’t be able to keep my business open if it happens again next summer. Mexico has crabs, and I have people to run the place… I have the women there, and they know what to do.”
The Eastern Shore is rural and isolated, consistently lacking qualified providers and support staff, but for many of the jaiberas this was their only source of health care (see Sangaramoorthy and Guevara 2017 and Sangaramoorthy 2018 for discussion of immigrant health care in rural Maryland). Nurse Jacob, who headed the migrant clinic on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and several of his colleagues contacted some women’s clinics in Mexico to apprise them of their patients’ health issues. He did so on his own time using his personal contact information from Facebook and WhatsApp. He wanted to make sure the women had the medications they needed or knew what equivalent they should be taking in Mexico. So much of their work revolved around migrant care that the entire team’s hours were shuffled elsewhere or cut during the summer. Jacob then told me that the few women who were able to acquire a visa “weren’t able to get the continuous care they needed because our hours were cut this summer.”
In September 2018, months after the visas were denied, the Trump administration suddenly agreed to approve 15,000 additional visas for seasonal work. With almost no notice, the crab houses received the majority of their needed H-2B workers. This left little time for the jaiberas to make up lost wages, the crab houses to recover lost profit, and the migrant clinics to recover their funding and staff.
Nurse Jacob let me know that when the women suddenly appeared in Maryland the staff had to change their hours, offer more appointments, work for longer, and call individual crab houses to locate many women. Some women needed prenatal care, some had diabetic needs that had not been met for months. Nurse Jacob told me, “At first, we cut the hours to the weekly evening migrant clinic, but it’s up and running—for now.”
Once the H-2B workers returned, Leti, a nurse in the clinic, pulled 15-hour shifts as she tried to schedule follow-up appointments with specialists, dentists, and obstetricians and gynecologists. She found transportation for the women through her network of friends, colleagues, and other migrants. Leti explained that everyone in the clinic put in more hours than were officially listed, “At first, I felt like there’s no way to fix this. I felt out of control. When they do that to the migrant women, they’re doing that to me. But I realized that I actually had help from all sides. Everyone cared. The ladies were helping, and the crab house owners were involved. I just did my part.”
The experiences and migration patterns of these women are diverse. The majority of women strictly adhere to the dates on their H-2B visas and travel back and forth from Mexico to the United States each year for decades. Others overstay their visa for a short or longer period of time to work in other industries or to travel and visit friends and family. A few women choose to make a life for themselves and their families in the United States. It is precisely the complexity located across multiple routes of migration that sustain and maintain networks of creative caretaking across borders. One evening in November 2018, I was invited to dinner by Doña Lucia, Doña Yolanda, and several other housemates at their accommodation a few steps away from the crab house. As we gathered around the table for dinner, Doña Lucia asked, “This can’t be our new normal, can it?” Would they have to do this again next year? What would they have to do the year after that?
In April 2020, during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the migrant crab pickers were asked by their employers to return to Eastern Shore to live and work in poorly ventilated and overcrowded spaces. Predictably, several of the crab houses quickly faced COVID-19 outbreaks. The amplification of uncertainty is part of what sustains the circuits of care between the crab workers and their actively responsive community. But what will happen when remnants of the post-Trump and post-COVID worlds add additional layers of tension? Will these networks of care survive and prevail?
I use pseudonyms for all my interlocutors’ names in this article.