It’s not easy owning and managing a fish processing company. The vagaries of seafood are vast and unpredictable. Sometimes the fish don’t show up, the price goes wacky, it’s difficult to find good seasonal employees and it’s hard to satisfy customers, especially overseas ones. Just ask Thomas Lee, the owner and general manager of Star Fish Inc., located at the end of Marine Drive in Drayton Harbor. He’s been running Star Fish for close to 20 years and he’s seen all the problems first hand.
Star Fish Inc. is the U.S. subsidiary of Moon Enterprises, a Canadian seafood importer, wholesaler and exporter of fresh, frozen and smoked fish and shellfish located in Richmond, B.C. Although smaller in scope than its Canadian parent, Star Fish more than pulls its weight for the company. There are five full-time workers and another 25 or so seasonal workers that are brought on for the fishing season, typically October through April.
One of just three seafood processors in Blaine, Star Fish bought over $2.5 million of seafood from local fishers in 2014. Out of 250 state crab licenses, the company owns 30, which it leases out, thereby providing even more economic benefits to the local economy.
Thomas Lee typically comes down two or three times a week to manage the operations. As owner, he does the banking, hires and fires employees, negotiates prices with fishermen and helps train new workers. His son Matthew, whom Lee is grooming to take over the business, helps him in this endeavor. Planning to retire sometime in the next five years, Lee’s also making sure that his two right-hand managers know the business inside and out.
Most of the company’s exports go to the Asian market, which requires a specialized knowledge in order to be successful. “We have our own way,” Lee said. “Twenty years ago, no one knew how the business worked. Even now, my competitors don’t know the ‘ins and outs’ of dealing with Asia.”
The company’s seasonal work force is typically untrained when they’re hired. Lee says some of them have criminal convictions that have made it difficult for them to get work. No matter – Lee and his managers train them to perform primary processing on product, which is then shipped to the Richmond facility for final processing. The Blaine workforce is considerably smaller and doesn’t have the experience of his Canadian workers who have the specialized knowledge and skills required to process seafood to meet the demands of the Asian marketplace. Even still, Lee has plans to upgrade the Star Fish facilities that would allow him to hire more workers and increase processing capacity.
Or at least he did until January 27. That’s when he presented himself to the local border station to renew his L-1A visa. An L-1A visa allows executives and managers of foreign companies to work in a managerial or executive capacity in a U.S. branch. The visa is typically valid for three years and is usually applied for at a U.S. consulate. Since NAFTA was implemented, Canadians can simply apply for or renew them at the border. That’s what Lee did and to his surprise, he was denied.
Local immigration attorney Len Saunders oversaw the completion of Lee’s 2-inch-thick application package and said he is “appalled at the rejection. [Lee] has owned the company and been running it for 20 years. This is a straight-forward case.”
According to Lee, the border officer refused to tell him why he was rejected but noted on the file that the “…interview of subject about his job duties indicates he spends the majority of his time performing non-executive/managerial tasks.”
That’s nonsense, according to Saunders. “I’ve done literally thousands of these work visa applications. Lee’s documents show he was 100 percent owner of the company. He’s not running around with gumboots on; he’s running the business.” The problem is, said Saunders, “This port is increasingly difficult to deal with due to a lack of consistency. They just decided he didn’t qualify and that was it. And to prove that the decision was inconsistent, his son reapplied one week later with virtually the same file and he was approved.”
What happens next is unclear. Lee’s application and rejection has been forwarded to a U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) center, which typically rubberstamps the CBP officer’s decision. Saunders says while there is no appeal process, he hopes to be able to offer some input before a final decision is made.
As for Lee, he’s unsure what will happen. “This is a critical time. If I can’t come down on a weekly basis, the business would go downhill fast. The workers need management to train and direct them.”