Georgia businesses push Congress for immigration changes

Georgia business leaders are diving into the thorny debate on overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, seeking to push Congress to act as soon it emerges from its summer recess next month.

Dozens of corporate executives, farmers and other businessmen have descended on Capitol Hill this year, pressing their cases for changing foreign-worker laws.

While some businessmen have been more specific than others on what they want, they are trying to build collective momentum. But prospects for the passage of comprehensive immigration legislation are uncertain, given the clashing visions in the Democratic-led U.S. Senate and Republican-run House.

Businesses routinely lobby Congress through trade associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wields outsized influence in Washington. But this push, with many individual businesses across multiple industries stepping forward, is rare.

» RELATED:  Georgia congressional districts and immigration

» DISCUSSION:  Georgia congressmen on immigration reform

The growing pressure from business interests could create a politically tricky situation for Republican congressmen. Businesses carry strong influence with lawmakers. At the same time, GOP congressmen don’t want to alienate primary supporters, many of whom oppose loosening immigration laws.

A national campaign called Bibles, Badges and Business is preparing to turn up the heat this month with a series of roundtable discussions and other events planned across the nation and in Georgia. The campaign supports foreign-worker visa programs and is pressing Congress for a solution that brings illegal immigrants “out of the shadows, stabilizes the workforce, and allows all Americans to compete for jobs on a level playing field.”

And just last week the Georgia Chamber of Commerce joined more than 400 business groups and employers nationwide – including Facebook, Google and Microsoft — in sending a letter to Congress in support of immigration-overhaul legislation. They said fixing the badly broken system would boost the economy, though they didn’t specify legislation they want passed.

Meanwhile, groups that oppose much of what Congress is debating are mobilizing. For example, members of Numbers USA, which supports reducing immigration, plan to attend congressional town hall meetings this month, to “shame” any businessmen who say they need to hire foreign workers, and to chant “Raise the pay.”

The flurry of activity comes amid Congress’ five-week summer recess, when lawmakers typically gather with constituents in town hall meetings. They left Washington this month, as the omnibus Senate immigration legislation was stalled in the House.

The Senate bill — favored by many Georgia business groups — would make it easier to hire foreign workers and would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Calling that “amnesty,” House Republicans won’t take up the Senate bill. They are considering several smaller bills instead, some focused on border security and immigration enforcement. One would make it easier to hire more foreign workers, though that legislation has yet to make it to the House floor.

So far, Georgia’s business lobby is batting 0-for-1. In June, Georgia’s two senators, Republicans Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, voted against the Senate bill. Chambliss said the agriculture part was flawed, and both said there were not enough assurances about border security.

Some of Georgia’s largest companies have taken different approaches on the immigration issue.

In an opinion article in USA Today in February, Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s chairman and CEO, wrote in favor of “strong border controls, greater opportunities for skilled foreign-born professionals and a clear way forward for undocumented workers — a potential route to U.S. citizenship that bears all the rights, responsibilities and obligations of that coveted status.”

In contrast, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based UPS said her company supports “immigration reform” but is “not actively out there lobbying for it.” Home Depot, also headquartered in Atlanta, has not taken a position.

Farm leaders have been particularly vocal, saying a major part of the state’s economy is at stake. They want legislation making it easier for the state’s $71.1 billion agricultural industry – Georgia’s largest – to hire foreign guest workers. Georgia farmers say they rely heavily on migrant Hispanic laborers because many Americans won’t do physically taxing work in the fields.

In June, two dozen groups representing Georgia’s agricultural industry sent a letter to Chambliss and Isakson endorsing the Senate immigration bill. Last month, many who work in that industry visited Capitol Hill, pushing for a better guest-worker program.

Jerry Lee is among those calling for changes. He is the general manager of Monrovia Nursery, which grows shrubbery, trees and vines on about 500 acres in South Georgia. The nursery employs about 240 workers there and sells to garden centers in Georgia and across the nation.

Lee worries his company would not be able to find additional workers if they are needed, so he has been urging Georgia congressmen in recent weeks to fix the immigration system. He wants something better than the current H-2A guest-worker program. Many Georgia employers complain it is too costly and full of red tape.

“I would hate to say, ‘Yes, the business is there. Yes, the capital is there. And the only reason we can’t do this is because we don’t have people to actually do the work,’ ” he said.

Tad Mitchell, of the family-owned Six Feet Under Pub & Fish House restaurants in Atlanta, has made two trips to Capitol Hill this year. The message he gave congressional staffers: Immigration helps support the economy by providing a reliable workforce. Mitchell said most of his kitchen workers are immigrants.

“For every one kitchen job we have we provide four front-of-the-house jobs,” he said. “There is still a lot of pent-up worry about where all this is going — and will we be able to effectively staff the kitchens?”

Georgia’s high-tech industry has also jumped into the debate, calling on Congress to lift the annual cap it has set on visas for highly-skilled workers. In March, the Technology Association of Georgia traveled with a group of business executives to make their case on Capitol Hill.

Critics of the Senate bill dispute that the nation has a shortage of workers.

“Why must we keep hiring foreign students at the expense of our own — especially when U.S. unemployment and underemployment are at record levels?” said Phil Kent, a member of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board and the spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control. “Foreign-worker programs are like giving employers crack cocaine and they’ve become addicted.”

Georgia congressmen confirmed they have gotten an earful from Georgia businessmen.

“They don’t want to waste this opportunity to solve, again, things we all agree on and know need to be fixed,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican who represents an immigrant-heavy suburban district and is against creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “Our step-by-step approach is going to give them that opportunity. I don’t hear the business community clambering to shove the Senate bill down America’s throat.”

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, represents a largely rural South Georgia district and is on the Agriculture Committee. Scott said a bill in the House Judiciary Committee to overhaul the H-2A guest-worker program “does a good job.” Agricultural interests, he added, agree to a degree. “They’re accepting of it,” Scott said. “They certainly think it’s better than what we have right now.”