U.S. Rep. Bill Keating visited the Rotary Club of Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday via Zoom, and fielded a number of questions from club members. Keating was bullish about the Massachusetts blue economy, especially on the south coast, the Cape, and the Islands. Keating said he expected those areas, which his district encompasses, “will be the hub of a blue or marine economy.”
“We’ve got the infrastructure in place all through our district,” he said. “We have the Woods Hole [Oceanographic] Institute, we have SMAST [School for Marine Science and Technology] at UMass … we have Mass Maritime, we have the community colleges — Bristol, CCCC [Cape Cod Community College].” He also pointed to ACE MV’s wind technician program.
“The Vineyard Wind project is going, actually, quite successfully right now,” he said. “It had sort of pulled itself out toward the end of the Trump Administration. They were afraid the administration — that wasn’t pro–wind power, frankly — in their waning days could do something. They were able to jump-start it quickly with the new administration.”
Keating said money is available for “expanded support of that kind of wind power, and for marine research.”
Keating said among other things, that would translate into more jobs and a general goal of his was to help ensure the jobs related to the blue economy go to local folks.
“I’ve been involved with legislation of my own to provide training monies for a lot of these new jobs. So I’m excited about it. All the ingredients are there. And it’s going to be a great opportunity for people in our region for jobs, to deal with the need for energy alternatives, particularly in Massachusetts, where they have decommissioned Pilgrim …”
He pointed out something would need to fill the energy gap left after the nuclear power plant in Plymouth shuttered, and the governor has embraced wind energy as part of the solution.
Private-sector companies in the blue economy sector are setting up in the region, he said. He pointed to aquatic drone maker Hydroid, Inc., which has worked successfully from Bourne.
“They could locate anywhere internationally — they’re coming to our area,” he said.
Keating said his district has the opportunity to be “the Silicon Valley of the blue and green economy.”
International work visas
Keating noted the Vineyard gets a lot of its international workers from Jamaica and Bulgaria.
“We’re challenged every year, it seems, on this,” Keating said. “The last four years they changed the rules several times — went to lotteries — didn’t help the system, frankly. In the days with President Bush and President Obama, the system that they used, although not perfect, was far better … where the focus was on returning workers to supplement the 66,000 annual jobs that are there for the whole country.”
Keating said the Trump administration exacerbated the problem. “There was an executive order under President Trump to stop all J-1 and H-2B visas — that expired two or three weeks ago.”
Keating said the pandemic hasn’t helped either. “The COVID pandemic has caused great trouble because for J-1 visas…as well as H-2B visas for the first time, people seeking those visas — you need an in-person interview. As you can imagine, in those countries that have been damaged even more than our country, in terms of the effects of COVID, they’re limiting those in-person types of interviews, limiting or not giving them.”
Keating said H-2B visa holders can bypass the interview. “Fortunately, the H-2B visas that are there for people who are returning, they don’t have to do an in-person interview,” he said. “They’ve already done it.”
Keating said he was unenthused by the volume of workers allotted this year. “The numbers just released by the Biden administration and Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, are, in my opinion, insufficient to the demand in our region and nationally,” he said. “They only increased the cap number by 22,000 people, and 6,000 of those were designated from the northern triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. We get, as I said, a lot of our people on the Island from Jamaica. Now the other thing that’s been a problem, the new administration, they’re getting their feet under them, set a date of June 1 for the additional applications.”
Keating noted those applications still have to be processed after that.
“So that could be six to eight weeks,” he said. “You’re talking July and August, which is too late for the surge that we have. What we’re doing in our office, we’re trying to talk to the administration — trying to see if they can bring that June 1 date forward so it’s sooner, so that the ability for those additional workers actually helps us. We’re working with the State Department to encourage these other countries, as much as we can encourage another country in the middle of a pandemic, to modify or change the the interview process, so we can have some of those young people come over and provide some relief in this regard, and give them the experience of coming to the U.S.”
Keating said his office works on international worker visas year-round, and for next year he hopes to effect a reversion to the Bush- and Obama-style policies, which he described as “much more simple and straightforward, and more effective.”