Part 5: Businesses lead immigration push : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Part 5: Businesses lead immigration push

Sunday, 2 September 2001 15:30 (ET)

Part 5: Businesses lead immigration push By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Congressional Bureau Chief

(Part 5 of UPI's 14-part Mexico-U.S. immigration series)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Running the Washington Hilton in downtown Washington is no small task. Some of the city's most powerful visitors stay in its 1,200 rooms, and the hotel regularly uses the massive International Ballroom for sit-down dinners for more than 3,000 guests, including the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner routinely attended by the president of the United States.

But a quick look at the staff makes it clear that if it weren't for immigrant labor, nobody would even be around to clear the president's plate.

"My hope is that every person that comes here, if they have a good work ethic and can bridge any language problems, that they can go as high as they want," Bill Edwards Jr., the hotel general manager, said of his highly eclectic staff.

Edward's 900 employees speak 38 different languages. The staff in his 14-member finance office represent 11 countries. The hotel offers "English as a Second Language" classes to employees. While the hotel's human resources department doesn't keep track of how many workers are immigrants, Edwards guesses probably a "tremendous" percentage.

"We have every religion, every race, every language almost in the world represented here in one fashion or another," Edwards said. "We have to make sure they are all documented workers. That is not to say they don't have fake papers. Someone whose paperwork is funny, we would, of course, call in."

At least right now, Edwards has enough middle managers and even a full "line staff" to carry luggage, wait on tables and clean the rooms. But it hasn't always been that way.

Over the past decade, when the economy was particularly hot and unemployment low, the hotel relied heavily on the government's "J-1" work visa program to pull middle managers in from other countries -- managers who where sometimes shipped home when those visas ran out. That inconsistency in management has posed an occasional challenge.

"In terms of longevity issues, which is the only political question I think I'll answer, it would be nice if there was some easing of that," Edwards said.

The hotel is illustrative of one business sector that has become increasingly dependent on immigrant labor over the past decade and that is now part of a powerful coalition pressing the government to ease immigration rules and grant legal status to millions of workers, many of who are in the United States now illegally.

"Current immigration laws are not responsive to the legitimate needs of employers and the nation's future economic interests," Randel Johnson, vice president for Labor Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said last month after a meeting in Washington with Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge G. Castaneda.

Business leaders said the full-court press to ease immigration policy might help avoid a looming economic crisis posed by worker shortages. By 2008, the U.S. economy will produce 161 million jobs, but only 154 million American workers will be available to fill those jobs, according to the chamber.

Led by the chamber, a powerful coalition of businesses calling itself the "Essential Worker Immigration Coalition" has helped heat up the biggest immigration debate in Washington since the mid-1980s, just as the GOP is reconsidering the politically enticing and exponentially powerful Latino vote.

"We believe a comprehensive solution is needed that would address not just new workers, but workers who are already here," Theresa Brown, manager of Labor and Immigration Policy at the chamber, said. That solution should include a program that will lead to permanent legal status for some immigrants at the end of a guest-worker program.

"If somebody wants to stay and an employer wants to keep them, that should be allowed," Brown said.

And that is exactly where a usually congenial relationship between the powerful business lobby and some Republicans in Congress gets a little rocky.

"Any kind of amnesty proposal is not going to be well received," Rep. Thomas Gerard Tancredo, R-Colo., the leader of the GOP's Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus warned. Tancredo and Republicans like Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have said they would allow a guest-worker program, but are ready to fight any plan that "rewards" illegal immigrants with permanent amnesty afterward -- regardless of the business lobby.

"I happen to believe we have an illegal immigration problem of huge proportions," Tancredo said. "You have to ask yourself, 'Does amnesty help solve that problem?' The answer is that it does not. In some people's minds that is a political problem, but to me, that is unacceptable."

Bush is now trying to decide what immigrants will get legal status, and whether that status will be temporary or permanent. A high-profile meeting on that issue is expected between Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox in Washington beginning Wednesday.

While Bush has publicly said he would not advocate immediate, "blanket amnesty" for illegal immigrants, he has not made it clear if some immigrants might get legal status at the end of a guest-worker program.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Hispanic community are working hand-in-hand with the business leaders on this mutually beneficial issue, and are demanding permanent legal status for millions of immigrants from both Mexico and other countries after the workers have been productive for three years in a guest- worker program.

"We want a guest-worker program to be linked to a legalization program," National Council of La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre said. "We want that legalization program to be fair, to be limited, to be as generous as we can probably make it. That is the bottom line."

In a bizarre alliance, major labor unions including the AFL-CIO are also working hand-in-hand with the business coalition. Businesses need the immigrant labor, and powerful labor unions now see millions of immigrants as new members as opposed to a threat to the job security of their existing members.

"These employers need immigrants. If they do not have immigrants, they go out of business," Service Employees International Union Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina said. "There is nobody else to do the work. So this is an unlikely coalition that is probably broader than any in my memory on any issue."

Medina said that businesses need the guest-worker program to provide some permanent workers in the end as well. "Turnover is very expensive," Medina explained.

But for many businesses, like the lodging industry, the dependency on the immigrant labor force is becoming increasingly urgent.

"The hotel business is a great business for a new arrival to be in," said Tom Negri, manager of the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.

Like the Washington Hilton, around 40 percent of Negri's 220 employees are immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East or even Bosnia.

"Nine years ago, there were two foreign nationals working at the hotel. So you can imagine the change," Negri said.

Unemployment in Nashville only hovers above 2 percent despite a relatively large influx of recent immigrants.

"Even with this new immigration, it really has not affected the unemployment rate, Negri said. "They are absorbed very quickly, and that is one of the reasons they come to Nashville."

-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 06, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ