The political risks to the GOP of immigration were highlighted in Cary, N.C., last week, when a PR. event hosted by GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers quickly descended into an extended complaint by business leaders about supposedly uneducated, untalented and unmotivated Americans.
The videotaped session was arranged by business leaders to applaud Ellmer’s support for a proposed immigration rewrite that would increase the current annual inflow of 650,000 guest workers and 1 million immigrants into the overflowing U.S. labor pool.
Throughout the Feb. 19 event, Ellmers tried to downplay the risks to American workers, and to the 4 million Americans who turn 18 each year, by using a series of poll-tested terms, including the “come out the shadows” euphemism for a conditional amnesty.
But the business and government advocates for increased immigration quickly stripped down to the basics — they want to hire low-cost foreign workers, mostly in place of Americans.
“There’s just not a lot of folks … that are willing to go back and do jobs that need to be done,” said Scott Schaberg, the director of company relations for the Golden Corral restaurant chain.
“I’m just going to go ahead and say it — Americans won’t do that work, and for what [employers] can get those other [immigrant] folks to do it,” said Dana Cope, who heads an advocacy group for government employees, the State Employees Association of North Carolina. The extra workers are needed to generate more taxes for government agencies, said Cope, who also was a vice president in 2012 at the Service Employees International Union, which is a leading advocate for amnesty and for extra guest workers.
The meeting gave lots of ammunition to her primary opponent, Frank Roche, who is running radio ads that highlight his opposition to amnesty.
“Rep. Ellmers voluntarily doubled down on her immigration position… more amnesty, more legal immigration, more unsecured borders, more multiculturalism,” Roche said in statement. “It is clear unemployed and economically challenged citizens are not excited about her position.”
“We need and want immigration for the United States — [but] we need much lower levels,” said Roche, a Massachusetts-born, former international banker in New York, who is working to win support from both voters and CEOs.
“There is a chance [immigration] could screw her in the primary,” said Ron Woodard, a former sales executive an an international high-tech firm, who runs a state-wide immigration reform group, NC Listen, which opposes illegal immigration. “The more she talks about this, the more people hear about it.”
During the event, Ellmers sought business leaders’ support for her advocacy for an multi-stage legalization, also called an amnesty, for at least 11 million illegals, and for an increased inflow of guest-workers. (RELATED: Rep. Ellmers backs conditional amnesty, fuels primary challenge)
“It is not practical, it is not comment sense to assume that 11 or 12 or 20 million people are simply going to pick up and leave our country…. they are living in the shadows [and] that is a big problem,” she said.
“We know that we need the workforce, but there is that idea out there that if we promote this, that we will take American jobs,” she said. “I would love to be able to clarify, that those of you in industry would [not] choose to hire someone who is here illegally or someone [on a work-visa]… because you can pay them less than what the standard wage would be,” she said.
“It is very important that we make the point why immigration reform is very important to [business leaders], and why it should be to all of us,” she said.
“There are myths, there’s misunderstanding, there’s stereotypes, and unfortunately, many [beliefs] that resulted in bigotry,” she said.
So far, the amnesty bill has been blocked by House GOP leaders because of protests from the public.
The ”immigrant workforce makes up about 22 percent for both residential and commercial construction,” said Lisa Martin, the chief lobbyist with the North Carolina Homebuilders Association. “We, at both the national level and the state level, we do support legal immigration,” she added.
Constructions worker are paid roughly $29,000 a year in North Carolina, according a website that tracks salaries.
“We can’t find local workers, and the H-2B [guest-worker] visa program does not work… there are too few [H-2B visas] and there are too many administrative hurdles to make that work for our industry,” complained Cindy Crew, a Maryland-based saleswoman with Marriott International.
Room-cleaners and front-desk attendants in North Carolina are paid only $20,000 or less, per year, according to data at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Agriculture companies need “workers that can just do the picking of tomatoes for 10 hours a day,” said Faylene Whitaker, an owner of a garden center and farm that uses machinery to pick 70 percent of its tomato crop. “We just can’t find local workers… Every aspect of farming in North Carolina depends on foreign workers,” she said.
“I have no clue” what wage would persuade Americans to take the tomato-picking jobs, she told The Daily Caller last month.
One in seven of North Carolina’s workforce is either unemployed, or working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, according to the BLS.
High-tech companies also asked for more foreign workers, though thousands of skilled American professionals are eager to take jobs in the state.
“Our concern is that if we don’t have the talent to help us in research and development and if we don’t have access to global talent, we may be forced to go elsewhere,” threatened Vanessa Beltre, a recruitment manager with a Caterpillar Inc. factory in Ellmers’ district, in Clayton, NC.
“We have Caterpillar employees from China, India, that are waiting up to 10 years” for residency permits, she complained.
Commercial databases show that Caterpillar has asked the federal government for approval to bring in 728 foreign professionals since 2011.
Cisco Systems can’t get the “visas [for guest-workers] that we need to be able to fulfill the opportunities that we have,” said Ed Paradise, the vice-president for engineering with Cisco’s facility in the nearby Research Triangle Park. The company makes Internet communications nodes, and has asked the federal company for visas to bring in 1,425 foreign professional-level guest workers since 2011. The company has also sought green cards for 1,214 foreign professionals since 2011.
A widely used online job-search site for American engineers shows that 12,233 engineers are seeking work in North Carolina or “anywhere in the U.S.”
The local university, North Carolina State, is also seeking to hire foreigners. From 2011 to 2013, it applied for 342 guest worker visas, while promising to pay salaries around $52,000 to the guest workers.
Cope, the progressive advocate for state government employees, also pushed for greater reliance on foreign workers. “We need to have a workforce, a workable guest [visa] program,” he said.
Government employees want “a reasonable path for law-abiding and tax-paying, hard-working undocumented immigrants already in the United States to earn legal status,” he added. Legal status is usually a precursor to full citizenship.
The employers’ dismissal of U.S. workers is offensive, Jan Ting, a former immigration official in President George H. W. Bush’s administration, told The Daily Caller.
“I don’t think there’s any job that is too difficult, hard or dirty to do — they just want to be paid a decent wage,” Ting, the American-born son of a Chinese-born surgeon who served in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge against the 6th S.S. Panzer Army.
“As a nation, we want American employers to give preferred hiring to American workers… we can’t just write them off, which is what the employers are willing to do,” Jan TIng, who is now a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa.
One of the business speakers at the event, however, later talked to TheDC at length about the measures he’s taken to find and train American workers since the federal government reduced his supply of H-2B guest-workers to roughly 40 per year
Few Americans want to work in his low-status and arduous landscaping sector, and his clients won’t pay enough to let him raise base salaries above $10.00 per hour, said Kurt Bland, co-owner of Bland Landscaping.
So he’s tried hard to recruit poor and disadvantaged Americans, including former convicts and people with drunk-driving convictions. He’s also opened a new facility at a bus-stop in a blighted African-American neighborhood so he can recruit marginal workers and people who don’t own cars.
He keeps his existing 200 workers by upping their skills, providing some health-care and a 401K savings plan.
He’s also considering buying robot lawn mowers that will help his employees raise their productivity, he said.
But he’s facing draining competition from fly-by-night companies that can safely hire low-wage illegals instead of Americans because state and federal officials don’t check hiring practices of companies with fewer than 25 employees.
Some of his rival companies haven’t even registered to use the federal E-Verify system (EV) that allows employers to reject job requests from illegal immigrants, he said.
“I have competitors, landscapers I deal with every day, who by law should be using EV, but they’re not,” he said. “Nobody is enforcing [the immigration law]… nobody is cracking on them, not at all… [and] all of a sudden there are landscape companies popping up all over the place with between 1 and 24 employees,” Bland said.
“All I’m asking for is a level playing field [where] all of us use EV or none of us… [because] right now the playing field is tilted sharply in favor of companies with less than 25 employees,” he said.
Woodard sympathized with Bland. “Once competitors hire illegal labor, other companies are pressured to do it to stay competitive… [and] when business executives want to play by the rules, they’re at a serious disadvantage.”
But if the government enforced immigration laws, American employers and American employees would rise together, he said.
Ellmers’ office declined to answer questions from TheDC.
Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, which organized the Feb. 19 event, also declined to talk to TheDC.
However, Jacoby told an interviewer Feb. 20 that the meeting was a “great event.”
“Republicans listen to the small business owners in their district,” she said.
“People in communities listen to the small business owners who they know and trust, who say ‘You know, if you want your Christmas trees, at my nursery we can’t grow them unless I have some extra workers to help me.’ That’s a way to explain to people in communities, voters, why we need immigration reform,” she said.
Ellmers is a great messenger, Jacoby said, because she is “very appealing, young, she was formerly a nurse… she’s from that young radical conservative congressional generation, but she’s smart about immigration.”
“She’s out front with Speaker [of the House John] Boehner and with leadership arguing that Republicans need to do immigration reform,” Jacoby added.
Woodard demurred. Ellmers, he said, “comes across to me as more concerned about helping illegals keep their jobs, rather than helping her constituents find jobs.”