It is rare for Georgia businesses — large and small, urban and rural — to agree on much of anything. But they do agree that there is an urgent need for Congress to put politics aside and move forward with reforming America’s immigration laws.
Widespread frustration with the current immigration system and the need for reform was on display last week at the Atlanta Rotary Club, where Atlanta’s business community and Georgia’s agriculture community gathered to listen to former governors Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Rendell, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, have joined forces as two of the co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Immigration.
“Nothing is worse for America than the status quo,” Gov. Barbour told the Rotary Club. “We’ve got a system that’s broken. We need to do something about it for our economy, for our future.” Georgia Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, who was in the audience, recently expressed similar frustrations on behalf of Georgia’s$71 billion agriculture industry — if Congress “fails to act,” Duvall wrote, “the American people will keep the same flawed immigration policy we have right now. Nobody will be happy with that.”
Amazingly enough, on the same day Rendell and Barbour appeared before the Rotary Club, the incoming chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Delta CEO Richard Anderson, met with the editorial board of Atlanta Business Chronicle to express the view that the current immigration system was hurting Georgia businesses, according to reports of the exchange.
And earlier this year, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent told an interviewer, “I see a general consensus that there is a need for a 21st century immigration policy in the United States. I truly hope that this opportunity will be realized.”
So what is standing in the way of progress when the interest of Fortune 100 companies, like Coca-Cola and Delta, are the same as the interest of a farmer in Hawkinsville or chicken processor in Ellijay?
Not surprisingly, politics.
Gov. Rendell explained that there are more than enough votes in Congress right now to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill — a bill that would provide Georgia businesses with the reliable and capable workforce they need. But unfortunately, House Republicans, including members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, fear that any support for a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally today would invite charges of supporting “amnesty” and a potential primary challenge in 2014.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the president has said that he won’t sign a bill that doesn’t include a path to citizenship for those 11 million.
For the sake of Georgia’s economy, Congress — led by the state’s delegation — needs to reach a deal to make it easier to hire much-needed scientists and engineers, to keep talented students who graduate from Georgia’s colleges and universities in the state where they can launch startups and create jobs, and to make it possible for the 11 million to stay here legally, regardless of whether there is a path to citizenship.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, Georgia is home to approximately 440,000 of those 11 million, many of whom are part of and contribute to Georgia’s “Essential Economy,” which a recent report byGeorgia Tech’s Innovation Services Group defined as the goods and services that are essential to our way of life, that have to be produced right here in Georgia and that, as of 2010, contributed $49 billion to the state’s economy. The Essential Economy workforce includes hotel, restaurant and construction workers, landscapers and nursing home attendants, and those who harvest crops, pick produce and drive the state’s poultry industry.
Georgia has a long history of finding common ground on divisive issues, especially when it is in the best interest of the state’s economy. We are at such a crossroads with immigration reform and there is a great opportunity for Georgia’s congressional delegation to harness the emerging consensus from across the state’s business community to get something done in Washington.
Stein, who served as legislative director and general counsel for Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., leads the government affairs practice at Kitchens New Cleghorn LLC and is a lecturer at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech.