A major business organization is as intent on killing immigration reform in the states as it is in resurrecting it on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is promising to fight in court recently passed state laws that crack down on illegal employment because it says they are unconstitutional.
Those measures are filling the void created by the failure of immigration legislation on Capitol Hill, according to a new study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The report says that 1,600 immigration bills have been introduced in statehouses nationwide, with 244 enacted, since the beginning of 2007. Many states are responding to the increasing costs of public services associated with illegal populations.
The report was released Friday, December 7, at a conference hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and the NCSL designed to enhance cooperation between the business community and the states.
Currently, there’s tension over the new immigration laws, which the chamber says hamstring companies that have to comply with different rules in different jurisdictions.
The chamber also asserts that state measures encroach on an area that is the responsibility of the federal government.
“Almost all of them are unconstitutional,” chamber president and CEO Thomas Donohue said at the conference.
His organization will be making that point in court. It already has joined an action against an Arizona measure that imposes stiff penalties, including the shutdown of operations, against businesses that knowingly hire illegal workers.
A U.S. District Court judge dismissed the action December 7 on procedural grounds because it was brought against Arizona's attorney general and governor instead of county attorneys. The business groups have indicated that they will refile the suit.
The law, which will go into effect on January 1, also mandates that all companies in the state use an electronic government employment verification system. Businesses have denounced that device, formerly known as Basic Pilot and renamed E-Verify, as being inefficient and ineffective.
The suit in Arizona and a brief opposing a local ordinance in Pennsylvania are just the start of the chamber’s legal effort to halt state freelancing on immigration, according to Donohue.
“We’re going to file a hell of a lot of them,” he said.
The proliferation of state immigration laws is a reaction to the stalemate in Congress. A bill that would have strengthened border security and work-site enforcement while creating a guest worker program and a path to legalization for undocumented workers failed in the Senate last spring.
Since then, Congress has not revisited immigration even on a piecemeal basis because political tensions are so high between those who focus on enforcement and those who back a broader approach.
An aide to a senior House Democrat, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, called the atmosphere “poisonous” and unlikely to improve anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the states are forging ahead—and moving into dimensions of immigration policy that go beyond health care, education and other benefits that they’ve concentrated on in the past.
“We’ve really seen an expansion of the types of legislation states are entering into because of the lack of federal action,” says state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos of Washington, co-chair of the NCSL task force on immigration.
Not only has the scope of the laws increased—so has their distribution. In the past only states like California, Arizona, Texas, Illinois, New York and New Jersey got deeply involved in immigration.
That situation has changed dramatically. “Every state is dealing with immigration policy,” Santos says.
The reason for the changing political landscape is that there is strong popular sentiment to crimp illegal immigration, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
It’s a reality that the chamber doesn’t grasp, Krikorian asserted at the conference.
“It’s going to get worse and worse,” he said. “Instead of riding the train, [business] is going to be tied to the tracks.”
Krikorian favors measures that crack down on illegal immigration, whether they come from Washington or the states.
“Anything that makes it difficult to live here is necessary to bring about the attrition of the illegal population,” he said.
While Donohue and others emphasized that they want to improve the immigration system and ensure that workers are legal, they also stressed that increasing the country’s international population is an economic imperative.
Donohue maintained that sectors like agriculture, construction, hospitality and high tech are craving more employees. Low unemployment and an aging workforce are exacerbating the problem.
“There is a real serious need in this country for those workers,” Donohue says. “We don’t have the American workers to take those jobs.”
Even whole states are facing severe workforce shortages. Mee Moua, a Minnesota state senator, said her state will need to fill 25 percent of its labor force with people from other states or countries in the next few years.
“This is the community that’s going to save us as a state,” she said.
But Krikorian criticized what he called a push for “subsidized low-skill labor” that helps companies avoid raising wages and innovating.
“It’s just irrational,” he said.
One point on which everyone agreed is that Washington can’t afford to ignore immigration reform.
“We have got to get the Congress of the United States off the dime,” Donohue said.