Business

Grassroots momentum growing for immigration reform | Don Brunell

The powers in the other Washington appear to be aligning to reform our country’s immigration laws. It has taken awhile, but it is now time to make the necessary changes.

There are an estimated 12 million undocumented workers in our country. While people may disagree on the ultimate solution, many concede that it’s not practical to deport them and not fair to leave them in limbo.

Immigrants have been part of our history since our nation’s founding. To this day, the freedoms and promise of America continue to attract people in search of a better life. For more than 200 years, wave after wave of immigrants have come to our shores, started at the bottom, worked hard and moved up the economic ladder.

With the exception of Native Americans, all of our ancestors were immigrants. Our family’s grandparents migrated to Montana from England, France, Ireland and Germany to work in Butte’s copper mines. It was copper wire that linked our homes, stores, schools, hospitals and factories with electricity. Without the foreign miners, the copper mines would not have thrived, and the descendants of those miners would not have gone on to become doctors, engineers, teachers, electricians, shop owners and civic leaders.

In Washington, new immigrants continue to play a major role in our economy, particularly in agriculture, where they often take jobs citizens won’t. For example, even though 300,000 people in our state are unemployed, central Washington growers could not find enough workers last year to harvest their crops. With no one to bring in the harvest, fruits and vegetables were left to rot in the fields.

Historically, Washington has played a central role in immigration reform.

In the 1980s, Washington Republican Congressman Sid Morrison, an orchardist from the Yakima Valley, teamed with then-California Democratic Congressman Leon Panetta to propose a “guest worker” program. That program permitted U.S. employers to sponsor non-U.S. citizens as laborers for approximately three years, after which the workers had to return to their native country if they had not yet obtained a green card.

While the proposal passed the House in 1984, it died in the U.S. Senate. Subsequent efforts in 1986 and 2004 also went nowhere.

The stumbling blocks to meaningful reform have been over priorities. Some argue that we first need to secure our nation’s border to stem illegal crossings before developing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Others say the path to citizenship should come first.

Recently, former Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested the solution may be developing a path toward legal status for undocumented immigrants who could then apply for citizenship.

Ultimately, President Obama and Congress need to decide those questions, but they need to buckle down and act this year.

The pressure for reform is building across the nation. State leaders from business, politics, churches, civic groups, law enforcement and agriculture have come together in Washington, Utah, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado and Texas to sign compacts laying out key elements for reform.

The compact includes five principles for keeping families together, ensuring a strong economy and focusing local law enforcement efforts on criminal activities rather than immigration violations.

Further evidence that momentum for reform is growing came in a joint statement of shared principles signed last month by business and labor leaders.

In the statement, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka agreed that American workers should have first crack at available jobs, employers need help filling jobs, and we need a transparent system to identify future labor shortages.

When two classic protagonists such as the Chamber and AFL-CIO can reach agreement, it is time for Congress to act.

Formed in 1904, the Association of Washington Business is Washington’s oldest and largest statewide business association, and includes more than 8,000 members representing 700,000 employees.

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