Why Immigration Reform Matters

Once again, Washington (i.e., both Congress and the White House) seems to have gotten it all wrong. This time, the issue is immigration reform, and the government's current blunder is a proposed bill on which Congress is ruminating.

At first glance, the legislation, which President Bush has endorsed, seems to have something for everyone — those committed to a more rational national policy in regard to immigration and those who would prefer that we dig a deep moat around the U.S. and pull up the drawbridges. However, each of the two sides to the immigration debate have found provisions in the bill to make them hopping mad.

No matter how you personally view current immigration policy and practice, you as a businessperson in the hospitality industry have a critical stake in the outcome of this national debate. Like it or not, immigrants — legal and illegal, largely from Latin America but also Eastern Europe and elsewhere — make up a significant portion of the hotel industry's workforce. In many marketplaces, hotels, as well as many other service and low-skill businesses, have little choice but to rely on immigrant labor to fill jobs.

Those who say immigrants take jobs that Americans could fill have never run a small business. Hotel operators don't care who they hire, as long as the employees show up, do the job and stick around for a while. In fact, hiring non-English-speaking immigrants often costs hoteliers in the time and expense it takes for additional multi-lingual training. But in many cases, immigrants are the only ones who answer the help-wanted call.

If passed into law, several provisions of the legislation would be particularly onerous and detrimental to your interests as a hotelier:

  • A recent Senate amendment to the bill would slash the number of guest-worker visas in half to 200,000 a year. Further, these temporary workers could renew their so-called Y visas three times but would be required to return home for a year in between. If enacted, this provision would especially hamper the resort industry that often needs to rely on hard-to-find seasonal help.

  • Under current law, an employer can sponsor an immigrant's application for a green card. The new bill mandates a points system in which immigrants are evaluated by job skills and education. As a result, software developers and other educated immigrants will have a better chance of landing a card than do potential hotel housekeepers, landscapers or kitchen helpers. That's despite one government estimate that more than one-third of all new jobs in the next decade will be filled by people with a high school education or less.

  • Perhaps most troubling is a provision that would require employers to access a government database to verify that all employees — citizens and aliens both — are eligible to work. Let me say that again: You will need to rely on typically cumbersome and unreliable government technology to verify that all of your employees are legal. Just think of the additional time and expense this would take.

The issues of immigration are critical and complicated. It's vital to your business, however, that you take this subject seriously and act accordingly.

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