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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Georgia’s Immigration Law Hurts Farms and the State Economy

Georgia’s draconian immigration law took effect Friday and it is now a felony in the state to present false documents when applying for a job.

Parts of the law were blocked by a U.S. district judge last week–but not all.

The new measure, like those passed in Arizona as well as Utah, North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama and South Carolina, primarily seeks to stanch what lawmakers see as the biggest immigration threat facing the nation, unauthorized immigrants. The problem with these policies is that they were crafted by legislators wearing such huge blinders that they and the constituencies who spurred them on failed to consider the implications.

Georgia farmers, for one, are already feeling the adverse effect of the newly minted law. CBS reports many Latino farmworkers are staying away, fearful of raids and crackdowns. The owner of a family-owned blueberry farm laments the loss of twenty acres worth of fruit that will rot away unpicked and cost him $200,000. He is also worrying about 600 acres of grapes that will be ready for harvest next month.

It’s clear the revenue loss at farms and other businesses that depend on immigrant labor will negatively impact Georgia’s economy and other states that tell undocumented immigrants to stay away. These policies will affect the lives and well-being of ordinary citizens who have allowed their fears about growing immigrant populations in their midst to cloud better judgment.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal does not worry about the loss of immigrant labor. He proposes that ex-convicts fill the jobs abandoned by Latino laborers. Farmers have not embraced Deal’s solution, however. “Let them in the governor’s mansion to be cooks and I’ll let them on my farm. I want my family to be as safe as the governor’s,” sixth-generation farmer Gary Paulk told Time.

Georgians would have been better served by their governor and lawmakers had they not honed in solely on undocumented immigrants with the intent of driving them out. These policymakers could have taken a broader view and carefully accounted for the economic implications of enacting such measures. Better still, they could have left it to the U.S. government to sort out the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, July 7, 2011.

Where Immigration Laws are Made Today – State Capitols and Federal Courts

One by one, states have been enacting their own immigration laws, a response to the lack of leadership and political will in Washington to fix our nation’s broken immigration system. Now we’re starting to see a double-edged trend.

In Arizona, Utah, North Carolina, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama and most recently South Carolina measures have been enacted which focus on what lawmakers see as an intractable problem, undocumented immigration in those states. In turn, federal courts have scrutinized these new measures and deemed parts of them untenable.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker blocked parts of Indiana’s new law Friday, reiterating that immigration is a federal matter. She also singled out two specific provisions in the law that “have proven to be seriously flawed and generally unsuccessful.” One has wording that would allow the arrest of anyone who has had any notice of action filed by immigration authorities, which could mean anyone applying to be in the country for any reason. The other is a measure that makes it illegal for immigrants to use identification cards issued by consulates.

Judge Thomas Thrash, also a federal judge, stopped parts of Georgia’s law on Monday which authorizes local authorities to check the immigration status of suspects who don’t produce proper identification and to detain undocumented immigrants. He also granted a request from civil rights groups to block provisions that penalize people who knowingly transport or harbor undocumented immigrants.

Indiana and Georgia’s stringent new laws join those of Arizona and Utah, key elements of which have been blocked by federal courts. I foresee other state immigration measures being challenged and stalled as well.

South Carolina legislators approved their own bill last week and Governor Nikki Haley quickly signed it into law. But the American Civil Liberties Union plans to contest it, just as it has challenged immigration statutes in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. The Palmetto State’s newly minted law should get to a federal judge shortly, who will most likely find fault with it.

This cycle will no doubt continue. As more states pursue their own immigration fixes, they’ll be met by court challenges, followed by injunctions. Then states will file appeals, on and on until Congress and the administration work together successfully to reform the system. Unfortunately the political reality guarantees that this will not happen anytime soon. Immigration is such a hot button issue, with little agreement on how it should be tackled, that our elected officials are more than happy to punt straight through 2012. In the meantime the federal courts will be a battle ground pitting states against civil rights groups, while many immigrants and their families continue to live in fear and uncertainty.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, June 30, 2011. Re-posted on NYC Media Alliance, July 7, 2011.