Employers watch immigration debate

Some say temporary-worker program is not enough


The debate involving immigration reform weighs on business owners in Maryland and around the country as President Bush and Congress try to find common ground on temporary-worker programs and border security.

Some business owners say a temporary-worker program and other proposals may help, particularly in the short term. But others say lawmakers must find a permanent solution to the problem of undocumented workers, since many expect the job market for unskilled employees to get tighter during the years ahead for industries like hotels, construction and restaurants.

"I don't get the sense that we're a whole lot closer to a solution," said Mike Henderson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors' Baltimore chapter. "Particularly for this industry, there's got to be some sort of vehicle that will help the people in this country now become legal."

Despite where employers stand, many acknowledge that they're spending more time talking about immigration reform with their management teams and customers.

Carlos Campos, an independent trainer who teaches bilingual construction safety in Maryland and other states, said it was the primary topic of conversation this week as he went with a client to visit job sites.

"Employers pretty much have their hands tied," Campos said. "They need workers to go out there and do [the work], and really the only people who are doing it are the immigrant workers."

There are an estimated 7.2 million unauthorized workers in the U.S., 35 percent of whom arrived between 2000 and 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. These workers make up about 5 percent of the country's labor force. More than 1.4 million of them work in construction, and more than 1.2 million work in the leisure and hospitality industry, according to the center.

"We have an already tight labor market that's going to get tighter," said John Gay, a senior vice president of government affairs and public policy at the National Restaurant Association in Washington. "What we need is an immigration system that recognizes that and meets that need into the future."

Bush said in a televised address Monday night that he supported a temporary-worker program that would allow immigrants into the country for a period of time to do jobs that Americans aren't doing. The workers would eventually have to return to their home country, he said.

The immigration reform package approved by the House of Representatives in December relies on strict enforcement, such as border control, stiffer penalties and fines on employers who hire undocumented workers. The package does not include a guest-worker program or a process for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, as Bush proposed this week. The Senate has been debating the issue this week, and its bill includes a guest-worker program.

Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, says his industry faces a challenge in finding temporary and seasonal workers. Restaurants increasingly have to look outside the U.S. labor pool to find unskilled workers such as dishwashers or prep cooks, he said.

"Over the next 10 years, we are not going to be able to find the necessary employees we need for our industry from the existing labor pool," Thompson said.

But John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tougher immigration policies and has opposed guest-worker programs, said many employers want to hire illegal workers. Keeley said that's because those workers are "powerless to organize, they stay underground, they don't complain about $4- or $5-an-hour, or 12-hour shifts, and they are remarkably replaceable."

A temporary-worker program can also be an invitation for employers to avoid the U.S. market when seeking labor, said Jeff Faux, author of The Global Class War and former president and a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington.

The way the market is supposed to work, Faux said, if employers can't find workers at $6 an hour, then they should raise the pay to $7, and so on. But Faux argues that under the temporary-worker program, employers would be able to hire immigrant workers to do the labor at a lower cost rather than raising wages.

But David Sadeghi, chief operating officer of Big Steaks Management, which owns several Ruth's Chris Steak Houses in Baltimore and several other restaurants, believes a temporary-worker program would be a good answer until there is a better immigration policy.

And for all the debate about employers checking that their workers have a legal right to work in the U.S., Faux said such regulations are either impossible to enforce or simply are not enforced by the government. That is something he believes is not likely to change even if the temporary-worker program is passed.

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