The Economic Argument for Immigration Reform

Mark Shurtleff, attorney general of Utah, kicked off a panel discussion on state immigration laws at the National Press Club this Tuesday.

He began by recounting the important role of immigrants, particularly Chinese migrant workers who were severely despised and discriminated against, in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. He stressed that it was the tenacity of businessmen and the back breaking labor of immigrants that made the monumental project happen in spite of inaction from a then as in now polarized and distracted Washington.

Shurtleff, along with Michelle Bolton of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, Utah State Senator Curt Bramble, Mark Gerstle of Cummins, Inc., and Tamar Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks USA were at the panel to talk about states as “improbable laboratories of immigration policy.”

Shurtleff used the Transcontinental Railroad as an example of how business interests can spur Washington into action and to stress the importance of immigrant labor to the country’s economic vitality. He believes that an enforcement-only policy approach will not work and encourages stakeholders to come together with business leaders in crafting a viable policy framework to address the country’s immigration debacle.

Gerstle, a top executive of a multinational corporation related how Indiana companies lobbied hard to remove provisions in the state’s immigration laws which were detrimental to their interests.  Bolton said Arizona’s business community is working to repair the state’s image and is letting lawmakers know of the deleterious effects of immigration laws they passed. The entire panel was in agreement that immigration policy, both at the state and federal levels, should attract and retain businesses as well as the immigrants that start and staff them.

The framework put forth as a pragmatic and rational approach is the Utah Compact. It is a declaration of five principles by a group of business, community and religious leaders meant to guide the immigration debate in the state. It confirms that immigration falls under federal purview; believes that local law enforcement should focus on criminal activities; opposes policies that unnecessarily separate families; affirms the crucial economic role of immigrants; and acknowledges that immigrants are well-woven into the fabric of society.

It seems that the idea has caught on. Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maine and Nebraska legislators have presented their own versions of the compact.

As the country clambers out of a recession that has long been declared over, the economic argument has certainly gained currency, even in Washington. Sen. Charles Schumer told POLITICO Monday that he is using the economic argument to revive efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. “We decided we ought to start highlighting the fact that immigration creates jobs rather than takes them away,” Schumer said. “Everyone agreed that is how we are going to start talking about immigration, as a job creator.”

For most Americans, this economic argument for immigration reform that acknowledges the contributions of and need for immigrants may be the most convincing yet, as families continue to struggle with tight budgets and job insecurity.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, July 21, 2011.

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