NCF Immigration Conference Opening Remarks | U.S. Chamber of Commerce

NCF Immigration Conference Opening Remarks

Wednesday, September 17, 2003 - 8:00pm

September 18, 2003

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. I'm Tom Donohue, the Chamber's president and CEO, and I'm pleased to kick off today's program on immigration policy and how it relates to security and economic growth.

Events like today's just don't happen by themselves. They occur only with the support of our partners. I'd like to thank today's sponsors for making this event possible:

  • American Nursery and Landscape Association
  • Fragomen, Del Ray, Bernsen, and Lowey
  • The American Meat Institute
  • The National Restaurant Association
  • The Association of American Universities
  • Motorola, and
  • Microsoft

We're here today because the nation's immigration system is flawed and in need of repair. Our challenge is twofold. First, create a system that will ensure a sufficient supply of workers for decades to come.

Our second challenge is to find the correct balance between security and mobility that enables visitors, students, and temporary workers to enter our country without undue hassle.

Let me start by addressing our long-term immigration needs.

Demographics, a growing economy, and a growing gap between job requirements and worker skills have created a current and future workforce crisis, that, if left unchecked, will cripple businesses—especially small ones—and severely stall economic growth.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by the end of the decade, the economy will create 22 million jobs. At current immigration levels, our projected workforce growth over the same period is 17 million. If my math skills are up to par, that means we'll be short 5 million workers just 7 years from now.

The fastest growing jobs are those requiring skills and education that fewer US workers are undertaking – science, mathematics, and engineering.

Solutions to this workforce challenge include improving educational and training programs for high skill jobs, recruiting non-traditional employees such as the disabled, and getting people to work longer.

But even if we do all of those things, we won't be able to close the gap without permitting more immigrants to come here and fill jobs. It's simply a numbers game.
These days, it's easy for people to see the unemployment rate and ask, "what worker shortage?" But let's not be tricked into doing nothing.

Surveys show that employers consistently rank finding and retaining qualified workers at the top of their list of concerns. And when the economy turns around, the experts predict that the same shortages we saw in the last decade will return in spades.

We need workers at every skill level—from scientists to cooks, from computer programmers to janitors.

And our labor needs will become more acute in the years ahead as more workers retire and the number of younger workers dwindles.

Immigrants from every part of the world and of every skill level—from highly trained professionals to manual laborers—must help fill the void.

We should also remember that we are not alone in the global competition for workforce.

Other developed nations—from Japan to Germany to Italy to the UK—are experiencing far more severe demographic issues. These countries are actively recruiting immigrants for high-skilled positions, and if we don't start competing for these workers, we'll pay a heavy economic price.

Our economy also depends heavily on temporary guests who visit our country to vacation, get an education, receive medical care, conduct business, or to work for a few months before returning home.

However, changes to our visa system over the past year have made this type of travel to the U.S. much more difficult.

U.S. Chamber members with operations overseas tell us that visa requests for their employees frequently fall into a black hole or go unanswered for months.

These visa backlogs have strained many of our business and international relationships and have created problems and costs for our economy.

I will tell you today what I told Mexican President Vicente Fox during our meeting last month—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains as committed to immigration reform today as it was before 9/11.

Specifically, we are working to create a system that:

  • More logically and effectively screens, identifies, and documents all people who wish to come to the U.S., while allowing legitimate travelers and workers to enter without delays;
  • A system with reformed and expanded visa and temporary worker programs that allow foreign nationals to work legally in the U.S. and return home to be with their families and invest in their communities;
  • A system that enables the enforcement community to focus on high-risk and unknown persons and those unwilling or unable to come out of the shadows;
  • And, a system that extends legal recognition to the millions of immigrants already working and paying taxes in the U.S.

And to those who say these reforms don't square with the need to increase security, we say to them that the right kind of immigration reform will enhance security.

And, it will cut down on the number of immigrants who tragically die in the Arizona desert or in a sealed rail car trying to fulfill their lifelong dreams.

A year or even a few months ago, the prospect of Congress acting on immigration reform was slim to none.

But in part because of the Chamber's non-stop lobbying efforts, several pro-immigration bills have now been introduced—and more are on the way.

With us are two members of Congress who have showed leadership on immigration reform—Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Representative Jim Kolbe from Arizona.

As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security, Immigration, and Citizenship, Senator Chambliss has closely examined issues involving border security and foreign workers.

Senator Chambliss was elected to the Senate last year after serving four terms in the House. He was a big underdog, but the Chamber threw its support behind him because of his solid pro-business credentials.

We appreciate the senator's leadership in the immigration debate, and we look forward to working with him to craft a bill that will ensure our economic strength for decades to come.

Please join me in welcoming a good friend of the Chamber's, Senator Saxby Chambliss.