Business leaders from North Carolina urged lifting the guest worker restrictions on foreign citizens as part of a coordinated national effort to break the tea party stranglehold in Congress and salvage immigration reform.
Speakers representing Triangle businesses SAS, Golden Corral, Biologics, Fleet Feet Sports and the N.C. Farm Bureau took turns speaking Wednesday at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, emphasizing that immigration reform would boost the state’s economy by supplying much needed labor here.
“We have to post a job and wait for two years sometimes before we can fill it,” said Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, the Cary software company. “If this country doesn’t compete, then the innovation is going to foreign countries.”
The coordinated advocacy effort is an attempt to overcome long-standing suspicions from the more conservative wing of the Republican party that immigration reform will take jobs from unemployed Americans.
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The Raleigh event was among some 60 activities coordinated in 25 states to put public pressure on the U.S. House of Representatives to update the nation’s immigration policy and make it easier to hire foreign nationals. In North Carolina, speakers in Charlotte, Hendersonville and Asheville included representatives from the construction industry and nursery growers, both heavily dependent on foreign labor.
The national business coalition urging immigration reform highlights a public split between the Republican Party’s practical pro-business establishment and the more ideologically oriented tea party wing in the House of Representatives.
In Washington, the Day of Action for Immigration Reform included speakers from a who’s who of traditional Republican allies: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The U.S. Senate last year passed a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill that includes many provisions the Raleigh speakers applauded. The U.S. House has refused to consider the legislation, which would increase border security, create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and include guest worker provisions.
House Republicans want to focus on tightening border security to cut off access into the United States from Mexico. They feared that the Senate legislation would reward immigrants who came here illegally by offering amnesty and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people in this country.
However, Wednesday’s speakers hope individual provisions can be salvaged and passed as stand-alone bills.
Goodnight said companies like his want to be able to hire more qualified foreign students graduating from American universities with advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences. But the national annual limit of 85,000 visas for foreign workers is snapped up within days each year, he said, which means that thousands of students are turned away and U.S. universities end up training the workforces for competitors abroad.
Peter Daniels, vice president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, said most seasonal harvesting and other migrant farm work in North Carolina is being done by undocumented immigrants. About 70,000 migrant workers pick crops and do other farm work, Daniels estimated, and only about 10 percent are doing it legally as guest workers on H-2A visas.
Such visas are cumbersome because they’re limited to specific dates that have to be selected months before farmers know when their crops will be ready for harvest, he said.
“Farmers prefer to hire legally and the workers prefer to work legally,” Daniels said. “We need more visas for more workers in a program designed to meet market demand, versus some arbitrary roadblock erected to limit market demand.”
The shortage of farm labor has caused crops to rot in the fields, he said.
Also speaking in Raleigh was Richard Urquhart, chief operating officer of Investors Management Company, the Raleigh holding company of Fleet Feet, Golden Corral, Biologics and others. Urquhart offered character profiles of Hispanic immigrants who have succeeded in Investors Management, and said the business needs more people like them.