Businesses praise Bush's call for immigration reforms
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
The tourists who fill the indoor wave pool at the Cape Codder Resort & Spa each summer and vie for tables at the Hearth n' Kettle restaurants won't arrive for months.
But Bill Catania, whose family owns the Massachusetts businesses, has already begun filling out forms to secure 90 temporary workers from Jamaica and Nepal needed to wash dishes and clean rooms once the weather warms.
"There's not enough Americans to take the jobs," said Catania, whose company is based in Hyannis, Mass. The company brings in foreign temps "for 10 months and then we have to send them back."
That challenge -- finding and keeping legally employable workers to fill mostly unglamorous lower-wage service jobs -- explains broad enthusiasm by Catania and other business owners for an idea that in other quarters sparks heated debate: loosening immigration laws.
President Bush put the idea, shelved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, back in play recently with a proposal to grant temporary legal status to millions of immigrant workers. The proposal, far from becoming law, would apply to foreign workers already in this country illegally, as well as those who want to come, provided they have a job lined up.
The president's plan, which calls for allowing workers to stay in the country for renewable 3-year periods, is sketchy on specifics. But while the proposal has received wide criticism, including from organized labor, it is warmly received by many businesses, including some that have pushed for relief from Washington.
"The economic need is there," said Laura Reiff, a lawyer who co-chairs the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition, a business group that has lobbied for change on the issue. "I think we've just been handed on a silver platter the chance to get immigration reform in '04."
EWIC includes a roster of companies and industry groups, from the construction and meatpacking firms to operators of nursing homes and hotels, as well as restaurant chains like Denny's and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.
Coalition members and others say they already hire large numbers of foreign workers, but complain about time-consuming, expensive procedures to get them, and laws that force them to play policeman and screen out illegals.
Their hiring needs vary greatly. But at a time when many American workers are struggling to find positions, these businesses say their job openings are routinely shunned. They have little choice, businesses say, but to fill many of those jobs with foreigners.
Immigration reform is a matter of necessity, rather than of ideology, they say.
"It's a misnomer to think that these jobs are somehow taken away from Americans," said Rick Birkman, owner of Texas Roofing Co. in Austin, Texas, nearly all of whose employees are Mexican-born. "For a small businessman it just becomes frustrating to get caught in the middle of this argument."
To prove his point, Birkman points to a photograph on his wall taken a few years after his grandfather founded the roofing business in 1935. It shows company workers, nearly all of them white.
Today, finding American-born workers willing to endure dirty, exhausting, dangerous work on roofs where temperatures can soar to 130 degrees is never easy, he says. The job pays $6.50 to $7 an hour to start with pay rising to $22 an hour after a few years for skilled journeymen or foremen. But the few takers Birkman recruits from local high schools usually quit within weeks, complaining about the heat.
Birkman and other employers say all their workers have presented documents declaring them legal to work. But he acknowledges they may not all be legitimate. The Bush proposal could be a route to what Birkman thinks might be the answer -- a training program in Mexico for would-be roofers and other tradesmen, who would then be allowed to come to the U.S. legally with a job already arranged.
The situation is very different but the dynamics are similar for executives at HCR Manor Care, a Toledo, Ohio-based operator of nursing homes and assisted living facilities that struggles to find nurses in the midst of a longstanding national shortage.
The company has bolstered its nursing ranks by bringing in about 25 each quarter from overseas, mostly from the Philippines. But the process takes 18 to 24 months to complete, said Rick Rump, a company spokesman. The company believes the president's proposal would shorten that time to 6 weeks, allowing it to quickly satisfy its hiring needs.
"Who knows how this will turn out, but it's positive what we're hearing," Rump said. "We and every other health care provider is trying to get these people."
Bill Edwards holds a similar view, based on his experience as general manager of the Hilton Washington. The capital city hotel depends heavily on immigrant labor to fill two sets of jobs -- low-wage positions in housekeeping and food service and entry level management jobs running restaurants and lounges. Both job categories attract a relative handful of American applicants, he said.
The result is a staff, which varies between 700 and 900 people depending on the season, whose members speak 38 languages. Edwards relies on temporary agencies to screen and supply unskilled workers, most recently Serbs, Croats, Chinese and others, when business is heaviest.
He'd prefer, though, to see the government create a program for those workers like the J-1 visa program already in place that allows him to bring in management trainees from India, Germany and elsewhere.
"Why not have a clear-cut way for hiring people who want to work" once Americans have been given a chance at the jobs, he said.
But some labor leaders, many of whom have pushed for broad amnesty for illegal workers, express strong misgivings about the Bush proposal.
The change would create a class of temporary foreign workers, beholden to employers for their right to stay in this country, and leave them separated from families in their home nations, said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union.
"It gives tremendous power to the employer," said Medina, whose union has worked to organize undocumented workers. "The minute your (a foreign worker's ) value is over, you've got to go home."
Some business owners have their own doubts about the proposal, based more on personal concerns than economic priorities. Some worry that loosening laws, without cracking down on border enforcement, will increase the flow of immigrants, putting an increased strain on public services including welfare rolls.
"For me, it's not just an economic issue," said Robert Bueche, president of Pioneer Roofing Co. in Phoenix. "It's a desirable thing to have more work force available because it would make our lives easier, but I'm a little reticent about how that comes to be."
But others say staying in business requires a steady supply of immigrant labor.
"If we didn't have to, we absolutely would not do this," said Catania, the Massachusetts hotel and restaurant owner. "They're coming in anyway. Why not let them on the radar screen?"
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