Archive for Wednesday, May 23, 2007

U.S. businesses oppose key measures in proposal

May 23, 2007

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— Chicken farmer Lucius Adkins doesn't see how he could stay in business if Congress passes an immigration reform bill that would require immigrant workers to go home for a year.

Keith Overton, chief operating officer of Tradewinds Islands Resorts, speaks to some of his employees Tuesday in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. Overton said the two beachfront resorts he manages on Florida's west coast couldn't stay open without its 100 or so seasonal workers. Tradewinds Islands Resorts now gets most of its foreign workers through an agency that hires them on temporary visas from Jamaica and Thailand. They work as housekeepers, cooks and maintenance engineers.

Keith Overton, chief operating officer of Tradewinds Islands Resorts, speaks to some of his employees Tuesday in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. Overton said the two beachfront resorts he manages on Florida's west coast couldn't stay open without its 100 or so seasonal workers. Tradewinds Islands Resorts now gets most of its foreign workers through an agency that hires them on temporary visas from Jamaica and Thailand. They work as housekeepers, cooks and maintenance engineers.

"I can't go six months without growing a chicken. ... We'll be out of business when they come back," said Adkins, who owns one of the biggest chicken farms in Georgia and serves as president of the United Poultry Growers Association.

U.S. businesses reliant on immigrants have long pushed for reforms to address their need for labor, but many at both ends of the spectrum complain that the proposal endorsed by Senate leaders and President Bush would prove too disruptive and make it too hard for them find the workers they need.

In Adkins' case, the poultry processing plants that buy his chickens rely on immigrant workers. And if the processing stops for even a short time, his whole operation grinds to a halt.

Across the country, industries such as carpet manufacturing, farming, poultry processing, meatpacking, construction, restaurants and hotels depend heavily on low- or unskilled illegal immigrants. Technology companies, meanwhile, increasingly look outside the U.S. to find engineers, programmers and other highly skilled workers who are here legally, mostly on temporary work visas.

The legislation would grant legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., allowing them to seek permanent legal residency or citizenship. They would be subject to a $5,000 fee and fines, and the heads of households would have to return to their country of origin temporarily.

The reforms also call for a guest worker program that would issue some 400,000 visas a year for largely low-skill immigrants seeking employment for two years.

Sean McHugh, spokesman for the Greeley, Colo.-based meatpacking giant Swift & Co., said he supports many of the reforms but worries the measure will cause high turnover.

"Our needs are year-round, and we do invest substantial amount of time and money in training a new hire, so we obviously prefer to keep them on the payroll rather than lose them," he said.

Swift was hit with big immigration raids on Dec. 12 at its plants in six states. In all, authorities arrested nearly 1,300 suspected illegal immigrants.

Many high-tech companies that routinely face shortages of skilled workers said the reform measure could actually make it tougher to find employees with the specific skills and experience they need in the fast-changing high-tech world.

Currently, high-tech companies recruit specific foreigners who possess the precise skills they need. These foreigners are issued what are called H1-B visas.

The reform measure would instead create a point system that rewards people with advanced degrees and special skills. Some high-tech companies complain that this would give them less control over the selection process. They also say the government needs to make more H1-B visas available to highly educated professionals.

Compete America, which represents major U.S. companies including Google, Intel and Microsoft opposes the revamped guidelines for H1-B visas.

"This could be a disaster for U.S. competitiveness," said Vivek Wadhwa, an India-born founder of two tech start-ups in North Carolina's Research Triangle. "We may get more cheap labor, but we're going to lose the engineers and scientists that we need to keep our global edge."

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