By John Florez: Immigration is about bread and butter

Published: Saturday, Feb. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Be careful what you wish for. With food, gas and heating prices going up, we may want to take a second look at how we view immigrant labor. It's an economic and workforce issue.

Employers have to deal with the new reality, a greater world demand for food and energy. Globalization has raised the stakes to stay in business. In this contentious atmosphere over illegal immigration, we need to take a practical and common sense approach regarding immigrant labor. Education and the development of Utah's workforce are necessary to succeed in today's global economy; managing use of foreign labor is a critical part of any workforce effort. The U.S. has always depended on immigrant labor as a way of meeting our workforce needs. While some have the luxury of standing on ideology, Utah employers do not. They have a payroll to meet. Farmers and growers have to be big gamblers — they not only have to gamble on the weather and a ready workforce at harvest time, but still being able to pay the bank loan.

Our national immigration policies are outdated and need to be revised for a new economy. In the meantime, employers have used the free market to manage their workforce to compensate for Congress' failure to revise immigration policies. It's unfair to business people wanting to do the right thing by keeping food and fuel costs competitive and boosting our economy. They deserve a regulatory environment that is stable, fair and where they can plan for the future. And the workers they have hired deserve no less.

The employment regulatory structure is confusing, burdensome and costly for employers wanting to do the right thing while having to compete for workers on an uneven playing field — pay workers' compensation, federal unemployment insurance (FUTA) and employment service costs. They must compete with unscrupulous employers who fail to follow employment laws by hiring cheap labor who are vulnerable and who are often paid "under the table," illegal immigrants. It's not only the federal laws that are not enforced, but state laws as well. It's the "rule of law" that is confusing, arbitrary and broken.

Our legislators are debating possible solutions to our immigration problems that hopefully are fair, humane and promote our economy. Legislators now seem to be framing possible policy solutions that would identify and monitor who is here illegally and establish a level playing field that is fair, humane and practical. Also, they are creating a federal waiver to establish a guest worker program. Another solution is to require employers to verify legal status of workers and subject employers to penalties if they do not make a "good faith" effort to comply with the requirement. It's the beginning of a Utah solution.

The long public debate over illegal immigration is the result of Americans concerned about the uncertainty over the quality of life we have come to enjoy that is now threatened by a changing world and the demographics of our nation. While some individuals can indulge in righteous ideology, policymakers must make decisions that do not lend themselves to right or wrong answers. Lawmakers need to create policies that reflect our community values — such as those found in the Utah Compact (www.utahcompact.com).

At the end of the day, lawmakers must establish policies that best meet the needs of our people — businesses, workers and consumers. Immigrant labor is about the economy — a bread-and-butter matter affecting each of our pocketbooks. Be careful what you wish for.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.

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