Big businesses seek action on immigration

Deep coverage

To keep our readers well-informed about the various aspects of the immigration debate, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the issue from Atlanta to the U.S.-Mexican border. For this article, the AJC interviewed officials from several companies with a large presence in Georgia. It also reviewed congressional immigration legislation and inspected records showing which businesses have asked the government for permission to employ skilled foreign workers through a federal visa program.

Caterpillar, Domino’s Pizza and Home Depot — huge companies with substantial presence in Georgia — are now voicing general support for improving the nation’s immigration system as Congress remains deeply divided over the thorny issue.

They aren’t offering many specifics or staking out positions on particular legislation. But there is a lot at stake for employers in the immigration debate, including access to temporary foreign workers.

Their decision to speak out is significant because businesses wield an outsized influence in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where comprehensive immigration legislation remains stalled. Caterpillar’s and Home Depot’s political action committees have given heavily to House Republicans. And Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s wife, Diana, serves on the pizza company’s board of directors.

In June, the Democratic-led Senate passed omnibus immigration legislation that would make it possible for employers to hire more skilled foreign workers through the nation’s H-1B visa program. Atlanta’s demand for such workers is among the highest in the nation, public records show. The Senate bill would also provide a 13-year route to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S. The Republican-controlled House has refused to take up that legislation, dismissing it as an “amnesty” bill. Instead, House Republicans are taking a piecemeal approach to immigration and are concentrating on smaller and more narrowly focused bills.

Caterpillar — which makes construction and mining equipment — employs 1,500 people in Georgia and has offices located across the state. Last week, the Illinois-based company celebrated the grand opening of an 850,000-square-foot factory in Athens, a facility that is expected to employ 1,400 workers when it is fully operational. Among other things, the company is focused on access to temporary foreign workers.

“We were founded here and we consider the United States as home,” Caterpillar spokeswoman Lisa Miller said. “However, the world is changing and our competition is global. We need access to the world’s best talent working for us — regardless of where they are from.”

There are 180 independently owned Domino’s franchise stores in Georgia, and they employ about 3,700 people. The company said it supports a temporary foreign worker program, though it generally does not find it necessary to consider using the H-1B visa program, a Domino’s spokesman said.

“We are for immigration reform and finding a legal path for immigrants to come here and participate in the workforce,” Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre said. “We’ve shared that message with legislators.”

Home Depot is headquartered in Atlanta and has about 20,000 employees and 90 stores in Georgia. The home supply company is among many prominent Atlanta-based employers that have made use of the H-1B visa program for temporary foreign workers, public records show.

“We think sound immigration policy makes good business sense, so we’re broadly in support of immigration reform,” said Stephen Holmes, a Home Depot spokesman. “While we know there are various ways to get this done, we support efforts in Congress to update our immigration laws, and we will lend our support when and where it’s appropriate to do so.”

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama met with business leaders at the White House concerning immigration legislation, including the heads of Lockheed Martin, Marriott, McDonald’s, Motorola Solutions and State Farm. The president supports the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate and is urging Congress to take action on immigration before the end of this year.

“We have a fascinating cross section of people — some unlikely bedfellows, some very liberal folks, some very conservative folks — who all believe that now is the time to get this done,” Obama said.

Critics of the Senate bill say the H-1B program depresses American wages and that those jobs should go to U.S. citizens. They are predicting Congress won’t take final action on any comprehensive immigration legislation this year because of other priorities. They also said businesses take risks when they speak out on hot-button issues that may divide their customers.

“There is just no win-win aspect to corporations standing up and taking positions on political issues,” said Roy Beck, the executive director of Numbers USA, a nonprofit that supports lower immigration levels.

Speaking out on immigration policy can be a delicate issue for businesses, said Campbell Harvey, who teaches international finance at Duke University. But employers will take a stand to get the skilled workers they need, including workers from other countries, Harvey said.

“Some of these companies are the point that it is so important that they are willing to take a risk on this,” he said. “And why shouldn’t they affect the debate?”

Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups and labor unions have been pushing Home Depot and Domino’s, as well as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, to side with them in support of an immigration overhaul.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America said it had no comment. A spokesman for Wells Fargo said the San Francisco-based bank — which has about 6,700 employees and 281 bank branches in Georgia — doesn’t take positions on “legislative issues that are under consideration unless they have a direct bearing on our business operation.” PACs for both banks have donated generously to House Republicans.

CASA in Action, an immigrant rights group, demonstrated outside of Home Depot and Domino’s locations last month. The group supports SB 744 and is calling on Home Depot’s PAC to stop donating to House Republican leaders until Congress passes an immigration overhaul.

“This is just the beginning,” Gustavo Torres, CASA in Action’s executive director, said of Home Depot. “We are going to keep pressuring them because they have a big responsibility.”

Last month, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights wrote an open letter to Home Depot Chairman and CEO Frank Blake calling for his support for an immigration overhaul and “a moratorium on deportations and the resulting separation of families.”

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform — a Washington-based organization that supports tougher immigration enforcement — criticized the call for a moratorium on deportations.

“That entirely guts the rule of law,” he said. “That is not exactly a prosperous, stable environment for corporations to operate in.”