WASHINGTON -- Business and labor leaders urged senators on Friday to upgrade the immigration system, which they called crucial to the nation's economic health.
U.S Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee the American economy will have an estimated 161 million jobs by 2008, with a work force of only 154 million Americans to fill them.
"The chamber strongly supports immigration and believes that immigrants are a driving force in our economy, both in filling and creating jobs," Donohue said. "They are also our best hope to curb chronic American labor shortages."
Labor leaders testified that the current restrictive immigration system creates illegal aliens who are mistreated by their employers under the threat of deportation.
"We know that the fortunes of all workers in the United States are linked," said John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president. "If undocumented workers have no practical choice but to accept substandard pay and working conditions, their U.S. counterparts will eventually be forced to accept such conditions as well."
Sweeney also recommended a broad legalization program to allow undocumented people from anywhere to adjust their immigration statuses in the United States.
Democrats have been more open to the idea of major changes in immigration law that would legalize millions of undocumented workers of all nationalities, including Mexicans. However, broad amnesty faces strong opposition from conservative Republicans, who contend it would discriminate against immigrants who have waited patiently and gone through the legal process to become permanent residents.
Immigration has been a hot topic in Washington this week with the state visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox. The Senate approved a bill Thursday night that would extend the deadline for illegal immigrants to apply for visas after Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., urged that the bill be passed before Fox left town. He left Friday.
House Republicans plan to approve the measure next week and send it to President Bush for his signature.