Opinion

David Rohde

Make immigration a campaign issue

By David Rohde
September 4, 2012

John Weston, Eric Buckland and Mike Bloomberg don’t have much in common.

Weston is a farmer struggling to keep in business the 1,000-acre farm his family has operated in Western Maine for seven generations.

Buckland is an entrepreneur who runs a small high-tech manufacturing company in North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle Park that makes handheld retinal scanners.

And Mike Bloomberg is the billionaire mayor of New York who doesn’t have many struggles at all.

This week, though, all three were deeply disappointed in Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. After Bloomberg released a detailed report and held press conferences on Monday urging both candidates to make immigration a serious issue in this year’s presidential campaign, the response from both campaigns was dead silence.

That neither campaign responded to Bloomberg’s challenge suggests that the brief moment when the choice of Paul R. Ryan as Romney’s running mate might hearken a serious debate about America’s future seems to be passing. There is still time for a change, but this is increasingly a campaign about polarizing the country, not unifying it.

For both campaigns, leading a serious discussion about how to fix immigration is apparently not their priority. “I think the campaigns each want to play to their bases,” said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser, “and are ignoring mounting evidence that shows immigration should be part of our economic policy.”

Obama’s enactment by executive order of a program that allows illegal immigrant to apply for deportation deferrals attracted thousands of applicants this week. The move will also clearly help Obama attract Hispanic voters, a key factor in this year’s election.

But Obama’s initiative doesn’t fix the underlying system. On Monday, with the backing of corporate executives, elected officials and a hundred university chancellors, Bloomberg called for a massive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. Citing a report that immigrants start more new business than native-born Americans, Bloomberg called for four changes:

- Automatically grant green cards to any foreign graduates students who receive advanced degrees in the STEM area – science, technology, engineering and math.

- Create an “entrepreneur visa” for foreigners who want to come to the United States, have a detailed business plan and have persuaded venture capitalists or other qualified investors to invest in their idea.

- Increase the percentage of visas granted on the basis of economic need from the current 7 percent.

- And create a guest worker program for seasonal and labor-intensive industries like farming and resort hotels.

From a tractor in Maine and hospital in North Carolina, Weston and Buckland both cheered. Months before Bloomberg made his proposal, both men complained that Washington’s failure to enact immigration reform was slowing their businesses.

In a February visit to his company, Buckland told me that U.S. immigration policies blocked him from hiring the talented foreign-born graduate students he desperately needs at his small company, which was spun out from the Duke University Biomedical Engineering Department.

He was encountering a shortage of qualified applicants, he said, because low rates of native-born Americans were studying STEM fields. When Buckland advertised for software and optical engineering positions, he received only five to 10 applicants, and 75 percent of them were foreign-born.

“We need that talent if we’re going to compete globally, period,” Buckland told me in a phone interview this week. “The ability to find talented software engineers has been one of our largest challenges.”

Buckland said he was 18 months behind where he had hoped to be in developing software programs that help doctors operate the scanners his company manufactures. He said the sole focus on even greater tax breaks for investors as a way to spark economic growth was misguided.

“Do we have enough technical talent to grow our knowledge economy?” Buckland asked. “My answer is no.”

In Maine, Weston, whom I know through his sister, a former classmate, is trying to innovate as well. When the New England dairy farm business collapsed in the 1980s, his father looked for a new business model. He was desperate to keep a family farm that has operated in Fryeburg, Maine since 1799 in business. He chose vegetable farming and retail sales.

Since attending the University of Maine, John has expanded on the idea. He got portions of the farm certified as organic and opened up two large retail stands to cater to wealthy tourists visiting the area. Business grew, but the younger Weston had a problem: Americans were no longer willing to be farmworkers.

“As the generations changed, it stopped,” he said. “You could do retail work, which was much more attractive.”

Instead of hiring illegal immigrants, his father hired summer farmworkers from other countries through the current U.S. guest worker program. The two men from Jamaica employed at the farm this summer work far harder than Americans, according to Weston, picking vegetables at twice the rate American workers had in the past.

Weston said that since the recession, the Department of Labor has instituted ever more stringent requirements that he prove no Americans will do the work. Each year, Weston pays hundreds of dollars to advertise the jobs in papers in Maine, New Hampshire, Florida and California, and files dozens of pages of paperwork to prove it. He was audited last year and fears that a technical flaw in his application will result in no workers and the possible closure of his farm.

“What ultimately frustrates me is how hard the government is fighting farmers that are asking for help,” Weston said in an email this week. “Rather than try to offer productive solutions, their time and money are going into creating ways to make farming more difficult.”

At the same time, talented researchers educated in the U.S. are leaving because they can’t get visas. In a May report, Bloomberg’s think tank described how other countries were providing incentives to attract talented and hard-working foreigners.

In a phone interview this week, Zhang Yuanbo, one of the cases described in the report, said he had decided to return to China after getting a Ph.D. in physics at Columbia University. The American visa process was so slow, convoluted and discriminatory that he gave up.

“There is much more research money now, it’s much better than the states,” he said in a phone interview from China. “There is more opportunity in China.”

Back home, politicians focus on blocking illegal immigrants from crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. Demands for building a massive wall spanning the border are popular among Romney’s conservative base.

Feinblatt, the Bloomberg policy director, said border crossings are at their lowest level since the 1970s. A recent New York Times article said that the improving economy in Mexico, growing middle class there and weak U.S. economy has resulted in zero net migration between Mexico and the U.S.

“Rather than making political calculations,” Feinblatt said. “Both candidates should be making economic calculations.”

I agree. We no longer rule the roost. We need to work with the world, not fear and fight it.

Comments
One comment so far | RSS Comments RSS

Thank you for writing about this. First, I’d like to tell you that your book Endgame was amazing. Thank you for telling that story.

I was a legal services advocate for farmworkers in Massachusetts for 10 years and I have been working with undocumented immigrants in Western MA for 6 years. In 2000, when there was real hope that a comprehensive immigration reform would pass I travelled around the state to almost every farm (about 90) that employed H2A guestworkers to talk to the workers, mostly Jamaican, and many employers. The reform would’ve allowed the Jamaican workers to get work permits and they were very hopeful that they would finally have a choice about where they work and who they work for. Employers were hopeful, too, because the H2A program is expensive.

Expanding the guestworker program is not a solution to the farm labor problem. Workers in that program have no choice who to work for and in many cases the workers are treated badly. Your friend in Maine says the program is bureaucratic but the truth is that there is very little enforcement and government agencies do almost nothing to make sure that abuses don’t occur. It is a program that allows employers to retaliate against workers who complain by never inviting them back and within the program on the Jamaican side (and Mexican side for most H2A’s) massive retaliation occurs when a worker speaks up in reaction to bad treatment. Expanding that program will only cost employers more and continue the exploitation of workers desperate for work in other countries.

The AgJobs bill that died after 9/11 would have given work permits to all agricultural workers in the H2A program so that employers could hire them without all the red tape and would have allowed workers to choose which employers they worked for. It also would have given work permits to undocumented workers in the country working in agriculture.

I now work with undocumented workers who make up the labor force at Western Mass. and CT tobacco farms, nurseries, landscaping companies and vegetable farms. The employers want these workers because they work hard for very little pay, just like your friend wants his Jamaican workers. These men and women are the backbone of agriculture here and without them these businesses would not survive.

The stories I hear from workers about their conditions and about what they put up with to support their families would turn your stomach. They come from Chiapas and from Guatemala and they are clearly used to suffering. During the months of the year when they have work they often work six or seven days a week at minimum wage and they are happy for the work. In the winter, they clean snow and hope for bad weather. They, and millions of other undocumented workers around the country are here to stay and are willing to work and if they were given work permits your friend would spend less on paperwork and on proving that there are no US workers available (which is not true, by the way, because if the system worked as it should, instead of importing workers from abroad they would import workers from other states where there is a surplus of under-employed agricultural workers).

A massive expansion of the guestworker program only perpetuates the horrible conditions of farmworkers and is not the solution for farmers or for workers. Most employers already employ undocumented workers and rely on them.

Thanks.

Maria Cuerda

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