Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Labor and industry agree on need for immigration reform

Representatives from industry and labor can agree on one thing: The country’s immigration policies are in disarray and in need of a big, big overhaul.

From there, the views diverge.

Union and industry speakers joined the University of Denver Strategic Issues Program on Feb. 12 to provide panelists with a business assessment of the United States’ ongoing debate over immigration. The panel is expected to hear from all sides of the issue, then craft a framework for immigration reform that will be presented in early December.

“Our immigration system is broken,” said Blake Pendergrass, a labor organizer who spoke for the FRESC, formerly known as the Front Range Economic Strategy Center.

“Our clearly broken system did not get that way overnight,” said former state House Speaker Chuck Berry, current head of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry.

Thirty minutes later, Josh Bernstein, immigration director for the Service Employees International Union, said much the same thing.

But in proposing solutions, some differences became clear. Labor unions are opposed to so-called “guest worker” passes for immigrants, allowing them to come in for a specific job and then requiring them to leave again. The program leaves open the door for employers to abuse workers by threatening to end the job that is the key to their stay in this country, Bernstein and Pendergrass said.

And the guest program never offers immigrants a path to permanent residence or citizenship, effectively closing the door on a legal immigration path, they argued.

But speaking for industry, Berry said guest programs are important for companies that can’t find American workers to do some jobs, such as farm work.

“American immigration troubles are entirely the product of economic success over the last 10 years,” Berry said. “In some cases, America has created more jobs than there are Americans to fill them.”

Berry said current voluntary legal-status programs such as the government’s E-Verify effort are not working because forged documents are easily obtained. Instead, he said the government could help industry by providing legal immigrants and guest workers with “smart cards,” tamper-resistant identification that include a bio metric such as a thumb print or iris scan.

Bernstein said the use of “smart cards” raises civil-liberties questions and would be unmanageable since every worker, including citizens, would likely have to carry them. Instead, Bernstein said, more resources should be dedicated toward assimilating immigrants into American society through language and civics training while offering a path for immigrants who want to work and live productively to gain legal status.

All agreed that the current economic downturn has both slowed the tide of immigration and bumped the issue of immigration reform to a lower priority. But when times get better, when construction jobs are plentiful, the immigrants will be back, and industry will be courting them, they said.

For sure, Pendergrass said, the solution will not be easy. Because of today’s global economy and the ease in moving funds internationally, any solution that doesn’t take a global perspective is doomed to fail. Without a global approach, Pendergrass warned, countries will be in a “race to the bottom,” offering lax environmental standards, low wages and poor working conditions in a contest to lure industries.

The Strategic Issues Program panel, led by Chairman Jim Griesemer, meets next on Feb. 26, when members will examine public service and social impacts of immigration. Guest speakers will be Don Mares, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and Ann Morse, program director of the National Conference of State Legislatures Immigrant Policy Project.

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