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Businesses Looking for Comprehensive Immigration Reform


One of the major issues before the U.S. Congress is immigration reform. There are many sides to the debate -- including how any changes would affect companies that depend heavily on illegal workers.

U.S. immigration agents recently raided a pallet and crate manufacturer as part of a crackdown on illegal workers.

Some companies are worried about how crackdowns and pending legislation in the U.S. Congress may affect their ability to stay in business. Employers are not supposed to knowingly hire illegals but sorting out who is in the country legally is not always easy, and those companies depend on a labor pool mostly made up of non-Americans.

Shawn McBurney, who represents the American Hotel and Lodging Association in Washington D.C., says there is a labor shortage.

"Our members are actually quite concerned. They have had labor shortages for years. They have tried to hire Americans, they just can't find them. There are folks that have put out 200-plus ads and have had two applications. They pay well over minimum wage plus benefits and they still can't find people."

Julian Heron represents the interests of Western U.S. agricultural growers, another industry heavily dependent on foreign workers. He says his industry has already seen the economic impact of the tightening of the U.S. borders after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"In the winter of 2004 the workforce in the border area was greatly disrupted. Many of the buses carrying workers, both legal and illegal workers, to harvest this nation's vegetable crop were stopped, sometimes as many as three times a day."

Heron says that resulted in millions of dollars in losses for vegetable growers in Yuma, Arizona and had an impact on other businesses. "The laborers lose their wages, the truck drivers lose their wages, the cooling sheds lose their wages, the box manufacturers lose their sales, and if we look in the Yuma area were there are about 50,000 heads of lettuce produced each winter, total loss would be $590 million."

But business experts say the problems don't stop with lost income. They say current laws requiring them to verify documents, such as drivers licenses, presented by immigrant workers to prove they are in the country legally put employers at legal risk as well.

McBurney says documents are requested and accepted based on face value. "There is a series of documents that they must accept at face value. The law states that if at face value they appear genuine, you must accept them as genuine. If the employer questions that, they can be fined for civil rights violations under the same law.

Mr. Heron says employers have been wrongfully accused of knowingly hiring illegal workers.

McBurney adds, "There has been a lot in the press about employer sanctions. The Congress has tried to put it on the back of the employer to determine who is legal and who isn't. And that is OK if there is a way to do that. At present there is no way to do that."

So the challenge for these businesses is to convince Congress not to penalize employers for hiring illegal aliens. In an election year, when many voters are worried about the influx of illegals, that could be a tough sell [not easy to do].

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