We Need Immigration Reform (Jay Chesshir and Randy Zook Commentary)

by Jay Chesshir and Randy Zook  on Monday, Nov. 23, 2009 12:00 am  

The non-partisan Cato Institute Center for Trade Policy Studies recently produced a new study, "Restriction or Legalization," measuring the economic impact of unauthorized immigration. The results might surprise you. The study concludes that reducing low-skilled immigrant workers in this country by 28.6 percent would reduce U.S. household economic welfare by about 0.5 percent or $80 billion. On the other hand, the positive impact for U.S. households of legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers would be 1.27 percent of Gross Domestic Product, or $180 billion.

Why is this especially important for Arkansas? According to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation report of April 2007, Arkansas had the fourth fastest-growing immigrant population nationwide between 1990 and 2000 at 196 percent. Between 2000 and 2005, Arkansas had the fastest growing Hispanic population in the entire nation, with 48 percent growth. At the same time, the native-born population did not grow at all between 2000 and 2005. No state and no economy will continue to expand without new workers.

Even during the current recession, some Arkansas businesses can't find enough workers to fill the available positions. As the recession ebbs, the problem will get worse. Is a skilled electrician or carpenter who is struggling to find work in Little Rock going to uproot his family and move across the state to pick vegetables or work in a poultry processing plant? How about a laid-off middle manager in the insurance business or a computer technician? The answer is, probably not.

Many of the undocumented workers in Arkansas are doing jobs that native-born Arkansans simply don't want to do. This means that Arkansas businesses particularly would benefit from a guest worker program that permits immigrants to meet the needs of the Arkansas economy.  When immigrants fill low-skilled jobs, native-born Americans are freed to pursue higher-skilled jobs.

Misguided regional efforts at immigration "fixes" can cause more problems than they solve. In 2007, the Oklahoma Legislature passed what was called the Taxpayer & Citizen Protection Act. The Oklahoma law required companies to be responsible for verification of worker status, with severe penalties for companies caught employing workers who could not be verified.

Oklahoma business groups recognized the danger of the act and filed lawsuits at once to prevent full implementation. A report prepared for the Oklahoma Bankers Association by the Economic Impact Group of Edmond, Okla., concluded that an abrupt outflow of the estimated 50,000 to 75,000 undocumented foreign-born workers from Oklahoma would result in a 1.3 percent reduction in gross state product with a loss to the Oklahoma economy of $1.8 billion.  

Trying to solve immigration problems with isolated measures on the state level is like trying to patch an old tire over and over. To solve this problem, once and for all, we need to buy a new tire. We need rational, comprehensive reform on the federal level that doesn't create new, unanticipated problems because it addresses all aspects of the issue:

  • Securing our borders;
  • Allowing for seasonal and low-skilled workers;
  • Treating all visitors to our country humanely;
  • Ending the villainization of the businesses that are the engine of our economy;
  • Providing a fast, reliable employment verification system; and
  • Finding solutions for unauthorized workers that don't require the logical impracticality of either mass deportation or mass amnesty.

For all these reasons, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and other chambers of commerce across the United States are joining forces with Americans for Immigration Reform, an organization founded by the Greater Houston Partnership to speak out with one voice on behalf of business - employers, workers and consumers - in this current round of the national debate on immigration.

The time is now, to resolve our immigration mess - not by engaging in ugly, bitter arguments and name calling that result in no legislative progress, but rather by enlisting all Americans in the struggle to find solutions that will work for all of us. Stumbling on with our current immigration system will continue to result in ineffective use of public monies, inefficiencies in our economy and the pain of ruined lives. It's long past time for us to resolve all of our immigration issues with a sane and rational approach that benefits Arkansans and all Americans.

(Jay Chesshir is president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Randy Zook is president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas.)



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