Immigration reform would have wide impact


Straughn Farms' Windsor -area Blueberry Farm foreman Romelio Carbajal, right, assists workers with the farm's pruning work in 2006. Carbajal, a U.S. citizen, said he walked for four days before arriving at Houston when he crossed the Mexican border many years ago.

Doug Finger/The Sun/File
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.

In late March each year, around 1,200 immigrants find a few months of work with Straughn Farms harvesting pound upon pound of blueberries in its North Florida fields.

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Straughn Farms' Windsor -area Blueberry Farm foreman Romelio Carbajal, right, assists workers with the farm's pruning work in 2006. Carbajal, a U.S. citizen, said he walked for four days before arriving at Houston when he crossed the Mexican border many years ago.

Doug Finger/The Sun/File

Facts

Comparing the two plans

President Obama's plan

Creates a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Supports strengthening border security but doesn't require them for path to citizenship.

Immigrants would have to learn English, clear a background check and fulfill other requirements to gain legal residency and citizenship.

Offers green cards to graduate students who earn STEM degrees at U.S. universities.

Establishes a verification system to monitor the hiring of illegal immigrants and levy penalties against employers that do so.

Allows same-sex families to seek legal immigration status for partners just as heterosexual families can.

The Senators' plan

Creates a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Border enforcement measures must be implemented before the path to citizenship begins.

Immigrants would have to learn English, clear a background check and fulfill other requirements to gain legal residency and citizenship.

Offers green cards to graduate students who earn STEM degrees at U.S. universities.

Establishes a verification system to monitor the hiring of illegal immigrants and levy penalties against employers that do so.

Includes no mention of same-sex families regarding immigration.

Most of these seasonal employees are migrant workers and are primarily Hispanic, and they supply the labor that Alto Straughn needs to ensure his entire crop is gathered up after the growing season.

For 10-plus years, Straughn Farms hasn't had any migrant workers that it knows to be illegal immigrants, Straughn said. But whether the documents his workers do have are fake is one question farmers aren't in a position to determine, Straughn said.

The seasonal workers in his employ do higher-quality work than the mechanical harvesting equipment he plans to phase in over several years, but the fear of facing an inadequate labor source has spurred him to gradually implement this tech-driven Plan B.

Frameworks for immigration reform released last week by President Barack Obama and a so-called “Gang of Eight” bipartisan U.S. senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, could improve Straughn's fortunes, and even more so the fortunes of illegal immigrants throughout the nation.

Since the sweeping reforms of the late President Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s, the federal government has repeatedly tried and failed to overhaul the immigration system.

Now a double-dose of immigration reform from the White House and the Gang of Eight could open a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants living and working in the shadows of American communities.

Both frameworks are largely similar, offering the opportunity for these people to become legal residents and, eventually, earn their citizenship by fulfilling requirements that include learning English. They would also strengthen oversight of employers through a verification system to determine if they're hiring illegal immigrants.

During his speech last week in Las Vegas laying out his plan, Obama said he would send a bill to Congress and demand a vote if lawmakers failed to move forward with reforms in a timely manner.

These efforts, if successful, could constitute the largest overhaul of the federal immigration system since the Reagan era and have wide-reaching implications for businesses, border security, the major political parties and, most instrumentally, the millions of illegal immigrants living in America.

A level playing field

Large-scale immigration reform would have a broad impact on businesses across a wide span of industries.

For farmer Alto Straughn, such reform would improve his ability to hire legal laborers to tend his fields during blueberry-harvesting season.

“We just want an adequate, legal force of labor, and whatever it takes to get that done, that's what I'm for,” he said.

Both the White House and Senate plans include the establishment of an employment verification system that could end the future hiring of illegal immigrants by making it harder for them to falsify documents and holding people accountable for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers by levying stiff penalties.

Such measures would level the playing field for businesses, said Jonathan Klorfein, director of client services for Labor Finders International, an industrial labor staffing company that supplies jobs ranging from short-term to long-term stays of employment.

The company has advocated for this kind of reform for years, Klorfein said. It hires people legally authorized to work, forcing it into what it considers unfair competition with companies that take on unauthorized employees.

Offering illegal immigrants the opportunity to become citizens will not only open doors for the workers, but also for Labor Finders and other businesses that will be able to better grow their workforce by hiring people previously unauthorized to work.

“A lot of these workers are great workers, you know, but we can't hire them,” Klorfein said. “Now hopefully they'll be on the path to becoming legal (residents). They'll be a legal option for us.”

The construction and manufacturing industries will also benefit because they will get a better workforce from staffing agencies like Labor Finders.

“It'll be a level playing field, and that's what we're looking for,” Klorfein said. “The way it's been, it really has not been a level playing field.”

Both the Obama and Senate plans would also provide green cards for foreign students at American universities who earn Ph.D.s or master's degrees in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields to encourage them to stay and work here, thus strengthening the U.S. economy.

The University of Florida College of Engineering graduates about 200 Ph.D.s per year, and about 80 percent of those students aren't born in the U.S., said Mark Law, associate dean for academic affairs in the engineering college. They usually go to work in industry jobs rather than in academia or government.

Based on accounts from students, Law said he believes most of these UF grads would like to stay in the U.S. after graduating. UF could face an influx of foreign students if the government begins to offer green cards to graduate students in engineering, although Law doesn't know how many more people it might get.

“I don't know that we would necessarily expect to see an onslaught,” he said.

Tim Giuliani, president of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the STEM provisions in both the White House and Senate proposals would have the biggest impact on local business, particularly given Gainesville's focus on growing its innovation economy.

Generally speaking, helping illegal immigrants gain legal status would also help improve the local economy, Giuliani said.

“Creating a clear path to citizenship for very talented immigrants is going to be important for our economy going forward,” Giuliani said.

Securing the border

Improving U.S. border security is a sticking point for the Senate plan, which would only open the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants after enforcement measures have been implemented and border security has been assessed by a commission.

But Richard MacMaster, a member of Gainesville's Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, thinks that provision could be a “poison pill” within the plan.

It isn't a realistic requirement because the nation's borders will never be completely secure, so it could create a road map to citizenship for illegal immigrants but never actually be implemented, he said. Besides, people aren't just entering the nation illegally by crossing the Mexican border — many arrive legally with visas and remain after they expire, MacMaster said.

“It strikes me that nobody seriously suggests that we should defer any kind of action on reforming the tax code until we have first eliminated the possibility of people fudging their income tax returns,” he said.

Stafford Jones, chairman of the Alachua County Republican Party, agrees with the Gang of Eight's security stipulation because he said immigration reform must target both establishing better border security and improving the legal immigration process to effectively tackle the issue.

“It is easier to slip across the border than it is to just go through the process,” he said. “Everything else is just a symptom of those problems.”

Jones said he thinks the American people will also question whether illegal immigrants should get a smooth path to citizenship when so many others up until now battled long and hard and did whatever they had to do to become citizens.

“I think you will see the American public flooding the Congress with phone calls saying ‘No, no, absolutely not,' ” Jones said. “That's exactly what we've seen before. I think that'll happen again.”

Another concern to consider is the background of illegal immigrants who could attain citizenship under these reforms, said Alberto Roman, owner of local restaurants Las Margaritas, La Tienda and Mexico Lindo.

Roman, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, said any reform program should run criminal background checks to ensure people haven't fled here because they broke the law in their home country or have violated serious laws since arriving in America. Both the White House and Senate plans would require illegal immigrants to pass background checks.

People who come here to earn a living and contribute to the economy are great additions to American society, but it is important to ensure they're not here for the wrong reasons, Roman said.

“If they're here because they want to work, perfect,” he said.

The politics of immigration policy

This isn't the first time the federal government has attempted to reform its immigration system since the Reagan-era policies were implemented. But it could be the first to succeed.

Whether either the Senate's proposal or Obama's plan becomes law depends on members of Congress. Without bipartisan support from the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-run House, these reforms may not pass.

The success of this push for change is uncertain, but freshman GOP Rep. Ted Yoho, a Gainesville veterinarian, is determined to work with his fellow lawmakers to achieve effective immigration reforms.

“This could be the one impetus — the catalyst — that brings both sides together,” Yoho said.

Congress has failed to achieve broad immigration reform since Reagan's administration, which is why the nation faces so many problems with the system today, Yoho said. The immigration issue cuts to the core of what people hope to achieve in the U.S., whether they're born here or come from somewhere else: the American dream.

Millions of people come to America to work hard and build a better life for themselves, and offering illegal immigrants a tough but fair path to citizenship gives them the opportunity to achieve that dream and help strengthen the nation in the process, Yoho said.

Immigration reform must be achieved, but Congress must establish a better system by setting clear, concise rules, Yoho said. Improving border security is vital, but it needs to be done through a carefully mapped-out strategy, the freshman congressman added.

Instead of kicking the can down the road for future lawmakers by setting broad plans without precise ways to implement them, Yoho suggested Congress stomp the can, stop it from rolling and solve this problem.

“We as a country deserve it,” he said. “The immigrants deserve it.”

Robert Prather, chairman of the Alachua County Democratic Party, said he is cautiously optimistic, albeit surprised, to see such progress on immigration reform, but he believes it will be a hard sell in the Republican-controlled House.

Although Hispanic voters have gained political power in recent years and voted largely for Obama in November's election, Prather said he thinks building Republican support among that demographic may be a motivator for some GOP lawmakers, but that is not these lawmakers' primary concern.

“I think this is a case of good-faith efforts to change a system that has been broken for a long time,” he said.

Paul Ortiz, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at UF and an expert on immigration issues, said this push for reform will be successful because of how much things have changed in America in recent years.

Latinos have gained both political and economic power, although immigrants also come from places like eastern Europe, Canada and Ireland, Ortiz said. The U.S. population is also aging, freeing up more space in the workforce that immigrants are vital in helping to fill, along with American workers.

Even if some Republicans support this mainly to curry favor with Hispanic voters, that isn't a bad thing — it's just the way politics work here, Ortiz said. Changes at the top occur because of changes at the base among the American people, Ortiz added.

These societal changes, paired with Obama's determination to achieve immigration reform, have made Ortiz confident that this time the effort will succeed. Illegal immigrants as a whole will finally be given the chance to become recognized members of the nation that many of them have been a part of for years, Ortiz said.

“They're here. They want to work. They want to be productive citizens,” Ortiz said. “To me, that's a great Civics 101 lesson.”

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com. Correspondent Clare Lennon contributed to this report.

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