By Maria Saporta
The business community will need to take a leadership role for true immigration reform to occur during the next six months.
That was the sentiment that former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour shared Monday with the Rotary Club of Atlanta.
Both statesmen are co-chairing the Immigration Task Force of the Bipartisan Policy Center — urging the U.S. Congress to take action on meaningful immigration reform for the good of domestic economy.
“We got to get the business community to lean on Congress,” Gov. Rendell said. “We need the business community to weigh in and say it’s important. It’s a seminal issue for us.”
During a recent Atlanta Business Chronicle editorial board meeting with leaders from the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the need for immigration reform was considered a key issue for the business community.
Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines who is chair-elect of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said immigration laws in Georgia and the United States may be hurting businesses in the state.
Specifically, he mentioned the extraordinary bureaucracy Delta had to go through to get the necessary legal documentation to move a European executive to Atlanta.
Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson said immigration also is a major issue in higher education.
“Fifty percent of the graduate students at Georgia Tech are not U.S. citizens,” Peterson said. “Probably the biggest impediment we have is immigration. Our graduate students want to know they can have the opportunity to stay here (after they graduate).”
Gov. Barbour said it makes no sense for foreign students to receive a great education in the United States and then be forced to leave so they can invest their skills in another country.
“We need labor in the United States. We need more high-skilled labor,” Gov. Barbour said. “Every diploma with an engineering degree should be stapled with a green card. We need them.”
Barbour also said companies also need lower-skilled workers. Mississippi processes $2.7 billion worth of chickens each year.
“If you go to a chicken processing plant in Mississippi, no one speaks English,” Barbour said. “And their biggest complaint is that they want more hours. Those are jobs that Americans won’t do.”
Barbour told a story of how prisoners were given an opportunity to go to work and earn money in the chicken processing plant rather than spend the day locked up. There were no takers. “Prisoners would rather be in prison than in a chicken processing plant,” Barbour said.
Another change that Barbour said is needed is to shift the focus of visas away from families to workers.
“Last year, 17 percent (of the visas) went to work and 83 percent went to family,” Barbour said. “We need about 70 percent to come here for work.”
Barbour, a Republican; and Rendell, a Democrat; hope that there will be enough bipartisan support to get some movement on immigration reform. If a mega bill can’t make it through both houses, perhaps Congress could try to pass portions where there’s consensus.
In Georgia, the host for the Immigration Task Force was the Essential Economy Council, which is co-chaired by Sam Zamarripa and Dan Moody, former state legislators — one a Democrat and one a Republican.
Again, it’s the business community that has the biggest stake in the issue, Zamarripa said. His organization includes representatives of several different industries — poultry, agriculture, restaurants, hotels among others.