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Immigration Reform Could Move Forward Next Year

Creative Commons

Immigration reform has risen and died many times over the terms of the last two Presidents. It's front and center this year with Donald Trump's insistence on building a wall on the border with Mexico.

Three years ago, the Senate passed a bill with 14 Republicans crossing the aisle in favor of comprehensive immigration policy change. The House did nothing with the bill and and the issue went dormant, not for the first time in recent memory.

The Supreme Court recently struck down President Obama's programs to expand the ability of come children of immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally. But, even given the polarized rhetoric on the issue, some supporters of immigration law changes think the attention may break loose the long lasting log jam next year.

Both major Presidential candidates have said immigration policy is key to the start of any new administration. What it will look like, of course depends on the election. But, Republicans have already introduced several bills in the House for consideration next year which could add to the basis of the failed 2013 bill.

During a recent discussion at the McLean County Chamber of Commerce sponsored by the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, panelists said there is reason for optimism. Adam Nielsen is the Director of National Legislation and Policy Development for the Illinois Farm Bureau. Nielsen said the H2A agriculture visa program is cumbersome and hard to assure there will be workers in time for harvest.

Nielsen said one of the bigger orchards in the state is in the Belleville area, run by Chris Eckert. Nielsen said Eckert has an agri-tainment facility, a restaurant, plus peach and apple orchards. Nielsen said Eckert can't get any domestic labor to work in the fields.

"The U.S. born worker will take two three dollars less per hour to bus tables and wash dishes than do the heavy lifting out in the field. So they are making an economic decision to stay away from that work and it's costing them. And that is just a fascinating thing," said Nielsen.

When there is a domestic worker who will take a field job, Nielsen said it's only for a very short period.

"And it's to get the unemployment office off their back. So, they're not very dedicated. They don't stick around for a while. And then they go back on unemployment as soon as they possibly can. That is happening all over the place in the United States right now. And it's a very frustrating thing," said Nielsen.

He asked how a business person can manage when the major cost input is labor? Eckert, he said, uses people largely from the same region of the same foreign country who know his needs and what to expect and what they will be paid. Without that connection, said Nielsen, Eckert would not be in business. And networks that provide such dependable labor form by word of mouth, not through advertising.

Nielsen said such labor limits also prevent planning for the future.

"Everybody wants to expand their business at some point if you have the resources to do it. But, you can't if you don't have enough workers to manage that expansion. So, they feel like they are constrained," said Nielsen.

And if they can't grow in the U.S., Nielsen said they might grow someplace else.

"I know somebody I work with on this issue who has operations in I don't know how many states and grows I don't know how many crops. But, I think she is looking at offshoring some of her production so she can avoid this," he said.

Labor availability as a pressure toward policy change enters in another guise. In the state of Illinois there were 600 startup companies formed out of universities in the last five years. But, Laura Frerichs, the Director of the University of Illinois Research park and UIUC Economic Development said many of the international students that are behind those ideas are in the country on F1 visas, student visas, or they are faculty members recruited from another country.

"And when they go to start companies, it's no small challenge to start a company here. And unfortunately the policy gives them every reason not to start a company here and return to home country in many cases," said Frerichs.

If a student with an F1 visa tries to start a company, their student visa often becomes invalid and they have to choose between education and pursuing a business. There are options but, Frerichs said it's difficult to navigate.

Frerichs said there are a lot of Science Engineering, Technology and Math professionals concentrated on college campuses in this country.

"But, we have not a very good path towards being able to commercialize and see the potential of the jobs that could be formed as a result of their ideas," said Frerichs

And the problem doesn't go away even if a student tries to interview for a job or start a business after graduation. Frerichs said 40% of venture backed companies are founded by foreign individuals. But, it could be so much more.

"Those are the high growth companies that we aspire to talk about. But that is the core that is starting some of the most innovative companies in the U.S.," said Frerichs.

She said the tech sector visa program is so restrictive it is almost impossible to retain high tech trained foreigners. Even the few that manage have an impact. More than twenty-five percent of the firms in the high tech business park in Champaign-Urbana have an owner or co-founder who is an international citizen.

"Just in our incubator in Champaign the companies, the startups, have raised 910 million dollars in venture capital. So if you look at those numbers, you could approximate somewhere around 200 to 300 million dollars in venture capital funding is coming to Champaign-Urbana founded companies because of immigrants being able to do that. And that is in the face of an extremely daunting process in starting companies and the improbability that you can even do so. And how many other students that we work with on a daily basis and have to say, don't bother," said Frerichs.

It's not just new growth at issue. Frerichs said the health of existing U.S. businesses needs immigration reform too, because the reality is economic globalization will not go away.

"Big employers like Caterpillar and John Deere and others; they're manufacturing and selling their goods everywhere, for markets around the world, not just to U.S. customers. And that growth is imperative for their own success. So for our companies to be competitive they need to be able to sell their goods around the world and  they need a workforce that's competitive," said Frerichs.

And Peoria Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Griffin said the high tech foreign worker visa system has put that competitiveness in jeopardy.

"Last year there were more than 230,000 H1b, which are high skilled visa applications, in the first week, for just 85,000 spots, resulting in a random lottery for visas for the third year in a row," said Griffin.

When entrepreneurs starting companies look at graduating college students who could be engineers or chemists or material scientists, Frerichs said, they're not necessarily waiting to fill that job until the first week in April when the visas are granted.

"You've got a very unique individual and I have to tell them you're going to wait until April and then you will have a one in three chance that you will lawfully get through that process and be awarded the privilege of spending a lot of money to sponsor that individual. And then you are up against these other companies that are taking all the available jobs and aren't even U.S. companies," said Frerichs.

She alluded to reports that forty percent of tech visas in the U.S. go to about 20 companies, many of whom consult or have contracts with big business. Frerichs said startups can't compete.

Donald Trump's wall and the idea of billing Mexico for it covers up what for many is a key roadblock to changing the visa system.

"We can't ignore the fact that our borders are sacred and we should be able to keep track of people who are coming and going," said Adam Nielsen of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Though, Peoria Chamber of Commerce Director Jeff Griffin said it's not like the U.S. government doesn't already take the issue seriously.

"Since 2006 we have doubled the size of the border patrol, built seven hundred miles of fencing and spent eighteen billion dollars each year, it's a staggering number, spent eighteen billion dollars each year to secure our border which is more than the combined budget of the FBI, Secret Service, DEA, U.S. Marshal, and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives," said Griffin.

But the key word in any discussion of immigration reform is 'comprehensive' according to Nielsen. To gain passage there must be something for everyone.

"Border security has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform. Does it have outsized influence in the current discussion? Hell yes! It does. But, it's gotta be part of the solution," said Nielsen

Nielsen said border security is also a practical element in fixing a broken visa system. He says without effective records of who is coming and going across the border, there can't be easy access for immigrants who need to travel for business. And without a system that works, Nielsen said some people fear leaving to see relatives or attend to business and that can hinder economic activity too.

Even more contentious than border security, if that's possible, is a pathway to citizenship for the estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Adam Nielsen tried to lower the stakes in that discussion by saying citizenship may be optional, and that's ok as long as they are economic contributors and good actors. His Danish grandfather, for instance, who came through Ellis Island in December of 1903, but who registered as an alien every year in January and, even after more than 80 years living in this country, never became a citizen.

"And I never thought of him as anything other than American. He flew the flag. I still have the 48-star flag that he flew. He sent his son to war to fight for the United States. And he never became a citizen. So it may not be for everyone," said Nielsen.

Details of a path to citizenship are still murky. It could mean waiting, paying a penalty, having something like a blue card, whatever that means, waiting in line for a number of years. Nielsen said something should be available to the undocumented.

What will break loose the refusal of house members to look at an overarching immigration bill? Panelists said it boils down to leadership. Both major party candidates for U.S. Senate in Illinois say they did or would have voted for the 2013 Senate bill. House members and candidates have been more reluctant to engage in specifics.

Rick Champ is the Director of Partner Development at IGNITE Church Planting. Champ said he recently talked with a staffer for a downstate Representative who privately is flexible on the issue, but who is in a solidly GOP district. Champ said political cover is absolutely necessary so that kind of public servant does not get primaried from the right.

"He said I understand there are people who support it, but we don't hear from them. So for those of us who say we want it, we've got to step up and make sure that those who are in position to make the change understand that there are a lot of people want it," said Champ.

Champ said if those office holders remain unwilling to take the risk then the most negative voices will rule.

One GOP sponsored House bill next year would set policy for children of immigrants instead of having a contentious executive order from a President. Undocumented immigrants serving in the military or enrolled in higher education might qualify for a path to citizenship. Another measure would address gaps in the current visa program for seasonal agriculture workers.

Many scholars have noted that at least some opposition to immigrants and immigration reform stems from economic uncertainty and the idea that they are losing ground in today's economy. He said it's harder to hold that position if you actually know your neighbor. The anecdote was about a friend's mother.

"And she was concerned about the Muslim next door. Somehow that was a danger. And he went over and talked with her and invited her to dinner. And now they're friends," said Champ.

Champ said it is important to deal with policy at high altitude, but for the benefit of American culture and for his business, creating new churches, it's equally important to deal on a human scale.

"You see a renewal, not only a renewal of American culture and American values, but for the church a renewal of passion and vision for the other, for the neighbor and for what can be. It sparks a creativity in churches as they engage with people who may be a little bit different than themselves," said Champ.

And Champ said from the pilgrims onward, that diversity is what Americans have always dealt with and what made the country what it is.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.