Immigration: Where Do We Go From Here?, Remarks | U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Immigration: Where Do We Go From Here?, Remarks

Tuesday, October 9, 2007 - 8:00pm

Phoenix, Arizona
October 10, 2007


Let me begin by thanking Glenn Hamer of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry for inviting me to speak today. I'm grateful for his staff's hard work in pulling together this event.

Four months ago, a hard fought, bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform plan collapsed in the United States Senate among much rancor and finger pointing.

The emotionally-charged debate rifted the nation, dividing communities and citizens and bringing protestors of all viewpoints out into the streets. There were divisions between our political parties but also within the parties.

Now that the dust has settled over that fight, where do we stand today? In one way, exactly where we stood before-with all sides agreeing that the system is broken and unacceptable.

But now we are beginning to reap the consequences of inaction. All the problems comprehensive reform was designed to address are growing worse.

Twelve million undocumented immigrants-who fill essential jobs and make contributions to our communities everyday-remain in legal limbo, driven into the dark shadows of society …

America's need for workers at all skill levels remains unmet as millions of baby boomers begin retiring-threatening our economic competitiveness and standard of living …

Outdated and overly restrictive visa policies are depriving America of the intellectual talent we need to succeed in a high-tech economy where expertise in science, technology, engineering, and math is key..

In the absence of comprehensive solutions from Washington, states and localities are filling the void with hundreds of their own rules and regulations, often contradictory, probably unconstitutional, and impossible for businesses to follow …

The federal government is no closer to implementing an effective, technology-based employee verification system that is fair to employers and employees, and actually works …

And many Americans are questioning whether we will ever again uphold our tradition as a welcoming society.

Many argue that the issues are so divisive and so complex they cannot be resolved. I reject that notion.

I believe if we lower our voices, take a hard look at the realities of today's economy, and consider what steps must be taken to ensure that America remains a global leader in the 21st century, we can forge a consensus and achieve real reform.

We can create a lawful, rational, and workable immigration system that secures our borders … provides the workers we need at all skill levels … protects the rights of businesses, citizens, the undocumented, and those lawfully pursuing citizenship … and positions us to win the global race for talent.

Not only can it be done, it must be done.

Today I'd like to explain why immigration reform is so essential to America's future and suggest a way forward on this critical issue.

The Need for Workers

We should start by acknowledging that we are a nation of immigrants. Our ancestors took chances and risked everything for the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families in America.

Legal immigration is as central to our national creed as freedom, democracy, and enterprise. But today, legal immigration is more than just a social value-it's an economic necessity. Why? Because the United States is producing more jobs than workers, and we need immigrants to balance the equation if we are to remain an economic superpower.

Consider these facts: Seventy-seven million baby boomers are on the verge of retirement …There will be a yawning gap between available jobs and available workers in the coming years …The need for science and engineering graduates will grow 26% to 1.25 million by 2012, but the number of U.S. graduates in these fields has remained the same for the last 20 years …Our population is aging-by 2010, nearly one in three U.S. workers will be over 50.

With nearly full employment, we're already experiencing worker shortages at every skills level. About one-third of California's crops rotted in the field last year for lack of workers. Farmers are outsourcing their operations to Mexico were there is an abundant supply of labor. Many employers in construction, food service, and tourism can't find the employees they need. Even some jobs in manufacturing are going unfilled, due to worker shortages.

Some argue that if only businesses would pay workers more, we could hire Americans. But you can't pay more to workers who don't exist in the first place!

In the technology industries-industries our country invented-the current and projected shortages of human talent are especially severe. China and India collectively graduate 12 times more engineers than does the United States, although they may not be as quite as good as ours and the comparisons aren't exact. The entire annual allotment of 65,000 H1-B visas for highly skilled workers are snapped up immediately after they become available. More than 135,000 applications came in this year the first day they were accepted.

The shortage of high-tech workers has gotten so bad that Microsoft will build its new software development center in Vancouver, in part, as a way to retain talented workers who can't stay in the United States because of immigration laws.

We need to dramatically increase the number of visas for highly skilled foreign workers and make the system flexible to market demands. We also need to dramatically improve our education system to produce the workers we need to succeed in the global economy. If we don't, America will be an also-ran.

The Positive Role of Immigrants

Many Americans would be surprised to learn what a significant role that legal and undocumented immigrants already play in our economy.

On the less skilled end, immigrants account for 44% of the labor in farming, fishing, and forestry … 34% in building, cleaning, and maintenance … 26% in construction…and 18% in health care support.

Among higher skilled occupations, immigrants account for 22% in computer and mathematical fields … 18% in life, physical, and social sciences … 15% in architecture and engineering … and 12% of our medical practitioners.

Stop and think what would happen to our economy and way of life if these immigrants weren't available. Stop and think what would happen in key industries if we rounded up and sent home 12 million undocumented workers? The last one out could turn off the lights!

Census Bureau data shows that without immigrants, the populations of the nation's largest metro areas would be declining, including those of New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. The population of the New York metro area alone would have declined by 600,000 if not for an influx of 1 million immigrants from 2000 to 2006. Many smaller areas-such as Battle Creek, Michigan; Ames, Iowa; and Corvallis, Oregon-would also be losing people.

At the same time we must, of course, recognize that the recent influx of large numbers of immigrants has placed a difficult burden on some border communities and states. No one can deny this, and there are legitimate concerns about the cost of social services, public safety, and the quality of life.

But these concerns are not cause for inaction- they add to the compelling case for a comprehensive, lawful immigration system that shares both the benefits and costs across states and regions.

Now, some have argued that immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. Yet a study by the Pew Hispanic Center examined immigration and employment patterns in all 50 states. It could not find any correlation between increased immigration and lower employment for American workers. Why not? Because our economy is growing and needs more workers- workers we do not have.

The Way Forward

So what do these facts suggest about the way forward? Any successful immigration effort must embrace the following principles.


First, Congress and the president should act immediately to address the pressing visa shortage issues that are already resulting in economic damage.

That applies to high tech, seasonal, and agricultural visas.

Visas for high and low skill workers should be tied to market demands. That means the caps go up when the economy is strong and go down when it is weak. We must also ease business traveler restrictions, while maintaining security.

Shutting off a vital supply of workers and travelers critical to the growth and efficient functioning of our economy is self-defeating.

National Approach, Not Piecemeal

Second, we need a national approach, not a piecemeal one.

While I understand the political pressures, states and localities should resist the short-term fix of passing their own ordinances. More than 1,400 states and localities have enacted immigration laws-there are 250 on employment verification alone.

Such measures are inherently unconstitutional. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provides a comprehensive and uniform system for verifying employment authorization of all workers in the United States.

In addition, federal law expressly preempts all state laws that impose any civil or criminal penalty on employers who fail to properly verify work authorization status.

Laws by state and local governments not only create numerous headaches for businesses, but in some cases, threaten their existence.

That's why the U.S. Chamber and a coalition of courageous Arizona associations and chambers joined in a direct party challenge to the constitutionality of HB 2779, an Arizona law which seeks to regulate the employment verification of workers.

Among other things, the law imposes different liability and conflicting sanctions-including the revocation of business licenses without an opportunity for a hearing-on employers who are deemed to have hired undocumented workers.

It requires mandatory compliance with the Basic Pilot employment verification system, which is voluntary under federal law.

Shortly after this measure was approved, a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down a similar ordinance in the city of Hazelton on federal preemption and due process grounds. The U.S. Chamber filed an amicus brief in that case.

We hope our lawsuit against the Arizona measure will achieve the same result.

We want the federal courts to discourage states and localities from passing even more laws … we want them to send a strong message to Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that serves our nation's interest.

Think about the absurdity of this … Illinois forbids businesses from using the Basic Pilot program; Arizona mandates that all businesses- including franchisees-use it. Some states say the Basic Pilot program is voluntary, some say mandatory, and others say using it is a violation of state law! Even the Department of Homeland Security has sued Illinois over its statute.

As I have noted, some states and communities are understandably upset at having to absorb the costs of large influxes of immigrants in short periods of time while others don't. They have been let down by the federal government's failure to act. And they want to do something about it, so they pass laws.

But if the case they want to make is that people should "play by the rules" on immigration, then taking such actions outside the U.S. Constitution does not exactly make their point! We need a national approach, not a piecemeal one.

Many local governments that have passed such measures are beginning to regret their actions. The New York Times reports that some cities have come to realize that they've ended up driving businesses and workers right out of town and repealed their laws.

Systems for Border Security and Employee Verification

Third, we need the systems, technologies, and infrastructure to secure our borders, ensure the safety of our citizens, and give businesses the tools they need to easily and accurately verify the eligibility of their employees.

The Chamber is a strong proponent of secure borders. Billions of border crossings occur each year at both the southern and northern U.S. borders. For example, over six million trucks come from Canada each year into the U.S., and about four million trucks cross from Mexico.

There is more than $1 billion of two-way trade crossing just the northern U.S. border daily.

We believe the smart use of technology, personnel, and programs can secure the border while allowing the legitimate flow of commerce. We can better manage traffic flows by creating secure but expedited processes for low-risk cargo and passengers, using technology systems to "pre-clear" vehicles and passengers before reaching the borders.

Any system devised must be provided with adequate and sustained funding to ensure proper development, implementation, maintenance, and growth into the future.

The government, working with business, must also create an employer verification system that works and is fair and cost effective.

The Department of Homeland Security's so-called "Social Security No-Match" regulation is a step in the wrong direction. We intervened in a legal challenge against it, and helped convince a court to temporarily suspend the program. The regulation imposes new, burdensome procedures on employers if they receive notice that social security numbers used by their workers do not match the records in the Social Security Administration's database.

Every year, that agency receives millions of earnings reports that it cannot match with its records by name. There are many reasons for this, including typographic errors, name changes, and hyphenated names having nothing to do with an employee's authorization to work.

The Social Security Administration itself estimates that under the DHS plan, there will be 9 million such mismatches!

What is American business supposed to do? Ignore the letters? Fire all employees with mismatches? Single out those they suspect might be undocumented immigrants? I think you can quickly understand the impossible, no-win situation this would put companies in.

The federal government should stop putting the cart before the horse by requiring businesses to fire workers or lose their business licenses before a failsafe system is in place to check employability.

Businesses are willing to participate in a workable, commonsense, effective verification program … but the government has yet to deliver.

Working with Partners

Fourth, we must recognize that a large part of the solution to our longer term immigration and border challenges is the continued economic development of Mexico and Latin America. Fewer of their citizens will feel pressured to emigrate to the United States if there are good jobs in their own countries.

At the same time, there will still be enough workers from Mexico and Latin America to meet our needs.

In this regard, nations on both sides of the border have responsibilities. The United States should remain committed to NAFTA and other free trade agreements in the region that strengthen our partners' economies. We should support regional leaders who promote economic reform, free markets, and democracy, while vigorously challenging those who want to turn back the clock on progress.

But Mexico and other countries that are the main sources of migration to the United States have responsibilities too. They must get their own economic and political houses in order.

In the case of Mexico, it is absolutely critical that President Calderon succeed. Mexico needs bold economic reforms, not half steps. We are encouraged by recent developments. Mexicans are stepping up to the plate on strengthening the rule of law … getting their fiscal house in order … liberalizing their energy and telecom sectors … and upgrading border infrastructure.

The bottom line is that as long as there are such large disparities in economic standards across the borders, we will not be able to fully achieve the orderly and lawful immigration system we all want.

More Legal Immigration

Finally comes the part that many Americans simply don't want to hear, but need to hear and think through very carefully. A fundamental purpose in creating an effective, rational, and national immigration system should not be to stop the flow of immigrants to our country but, rather, to continue it and in many respects expand it … prudently, sensibly, and lawfully, with the attributes of good citizenship rightfully expected of all who come here.

We need the workers, we need the talent, we need the energy and drive immigrants bring. And since that is , it makes far greater sense to normalize the undocumented immigrants already here than to send them back and start over.

Sending all of them back would be impossible practically. Such an approach would break up families and be tied up legally for years.

Let's use our common sense. Why not take workers who can already prove they are hard working and are law abiding, who already have a resume, if you will, with United States Inc., and make them a part of the fabric of our society? Plus collect all their taxes!

This is a more sensible approach than "trading them in" for unproven workers, workers we will need and cry out for as more crops rot in the fields … as senior care facilities go unstaffed … and as our premier high tech companies take their new jobs to other countries.


As a nation, we have important choices to make. We can either force companies to move offshore in search of talent, taking existing American jobs with them — or — we can attract the best and the brightest the world has to offer here …

We can either make the U.S. dependent on other countries for our food supply-just as we have done with oil-by denying our farms the workers they need — or — we can have a system for bringing the workers into our country so that America can remain agriculturally independent …

We can either continue to have a vibrant tourist industry made up of millions of small businesses employing 1 in 8 Americans — or — we can send tourism costs through the roof and drive visitors away because we don't have the seasonal and permanent workers we need to support that sector …

We can go back to a system where one spouse has no other option but to stay at home to care for their children and where elderly and infirmed parents live at home instead of senior care facilities because we have driven off the workforces that provide those services — or — we can trust with permanent residency the same workers we trust every day with our babies and our parents.

Whether we achieve this kind of lawful and sensible immigration system in stages or in one big bill is not as important as the need to act. What matters is that the status quo is unacceptable. The status quo is a loser for America.

We are a magnet for human talent and energy. That's not a weakness but a strength. Why would we ever throw it away?

When I think about the history of immigration in our country, I recall what Tony Blair once said. He was defending accusations from fellow Europeans that America was an overbearing, unsophisticated country.

He said: "You can judge a country by who wants to get in and who wants to get out."

America has always attracted the dreamers, the doers, and the risk takers. It was built into a great and prosperous power on the backs of those with a dream of a better life and the hard work to make it a reality.

What would the world think of an America that closes it doors, turns its back on its roots and traditions, and renounces it values? What would our forefathers think?

We have it within our power to create an immigration system that meets all of our economic and security needs while still honoring our values.

All we have to do is find the will, courage, and leadership to make it happen. I believe we will. To paraphrase another great citizen of England, Winston Churchill: Americans always do what is necessary and what is right-after trying everything else first.

It's time to get it right on immigration.

Thank you very much.

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