Immigration Reform Hits Home in Arkansas (Randy Zook Commentary)

The de facto amnesty our broken immigration system grants to illegal immigrants today directly hinders growth in two important sectors of Arkansas’ economy: agriculture and high tech. Legislation soon to be considered on the floor of the U.S. Senate will address this problem and improve our economic prospects.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 recognizes the reality of the current situation. There are 11 million immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally, and in all likelihood, they are here to stay. The logistics alone of identifying them, finding them and transporting them back to their native countries make mass deportation a virtual impossibility.

This legislation would offer immigrants here illegally an opportunity for legalization, along with permanent residence and citizenship, but it would grant them no amnesty, give them no special advantage over others and firmly reinforce their responsibility to obey the rules. They would have to pay fines, pass strict background checks, forgo federal benefits and get in line behind other immigrants who have followed proper procedures.

Preventing our current situation from occurring again would be accomplished by mandates that add thousands of border security agents and more border stations to make sure U.S. boundaries are kept as secure as practically possible.

Every state — including Arkansas — stands to benefit from implementing this strategy.

Nationwide, common sense immigration policies will do wonders for the economy. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center estimates that immigration reform will increase GDP by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. It will create 900,000 American jobs and increase tax revenue by up to $5.4 billion.

Arkansas companies in a wide variety of industries need the power and expertise of foreign workers, especially firms involved in agriculture and technology.

Agriculture is one of the pillars of Arkansas’ economy. In 2010, aggregate agriculture contributed $16 billion in total value added to state economic output. It supported 256,244 jobs, or about 17 percent of all the jobs in the state.

The seasonal nature of many agricultural operations makes the use of foreign workers extremely important. An immigration system that makes it possible for companies to legally hire these workers will allow them to better respond to the fluctuating labor demands of farming, ranching and food production. A more effective Arkansas agriculture industry will create more jobs, improve working conditions and increase pay scales for everyone.

Arkansas’ economic future depends on its ability to attract and grow high-tech companies. Studies show that for every job created in the high-tech sector, another 4.3 new jobs appear in the local economy.

We need talented foreign-born workers not just to staff Arkansas high-tech firms, but to start them as well. Today, one out of four high-tech startups has an immigrant founder. This comes as no surprise when we consider that about 40 percent of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.

This bill would reform the H-1B visa system, giving Arkansas companies greater access to foreign high-tech workers and entrepreneurs, while still ensuring qualified U.S. applicants would receive first consideration for open positions.

It is critically important that Congress acts soon on immigration reform. Today there is rare bipartisan political support for a policy change and overwhelming backing from the private sector. Studies show that 90 percent of owners of small businesses in the U.S. are dissatisfied with the current system and 84 percent approve of this proposal.

Immigration reform is the right thing to do and now is the right time to do it. We should all urge our representatives in Congress to move forward with this important undertaking and support those working to get the job done.

Randy Zook is the president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas. He can be contacted at