Foodservice association executives voiced support Monday for a plan crafted by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators seeking to revamp the nation’s immigration laws.
Eight senators from both sides of the aisle introduced a blueprint for comprehensive reform that, among other things, would provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States and a more efficient employment verification program.
President Barack Obama also has promised to make immigration reform an important priority during his second term and is expected to address the issue Tuesday.
Many restaurant operators have long supported immigration reform, citing numerous obstacles stemming from the current patchwork quilt of state and local laws, and the industry’s growing need for workers. The foodservice industry is expected to employ more than 13 million workers in 2013. Previous estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the number of immigrants — legal and illegal — who are employed in foodservice positions at about 1.4 million.
However, proponents maintain, comprehensive reform must include a path to legalization for undocumented individuals as well as the creation of an effective employment verification system.
The group of senators who introduced the plan are Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. The agreement sets four key objectives that must be met:
• Developing a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States that is conditional upon securing the country’s borders and improved tracking of individuals here on visas legally. To qualify, undocumented immigrants would have to register with the government, undergo a criminal background check, pay any previous taxes and learn English.
• Allowing businesses to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when it can be proved that Americans were given the first opportunity but were unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs.
• Creating an effective employment verification system that would prevent identity theft and curtail the hiring of illegal workers. The industry maintains that the current E-Verify system is flawed.
• Reforming the legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help strengthen the economy. This would include awarding green cards to immigrants who have received a PhD or Master's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university.
Garnering industry support
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“We are encouraged by the renewed bipartisan commitment to fix our broken immigration system,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president of Policy and Government Affairs for the National Restaurant Association, in a statement. “As the nation’s second-largest private sector employer, the National Restaurant Association continues to support federal immigration reforms that include a legal visa system that meets the needs of U.S. employers.”
At the same time, DeFife said, “An accurate and reliable employment verification system is one part of the fix that is needed to make immigration laws work for U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy. But it’s only a first step — eventually, worksite enforcement must be accompanied by provisions that give employers who have made every reasonable effort to hire Americans a way to hire legal foreign workers to keep their businesses open and contributing to the U.S. economy.”
Rob Green, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, said his organization was “encouraged and looking ahead [to movement on the immigration reform issue] in more positive way than it had in the past," adding, “without more specific language, we remain as cautious as we are optimistic.”
Meanwhile, Green said he believed immigration reform stood a better chance of passing this year than it has in a number of years, given the administration’s support as well as more bipartisan support in Congress. “It feels different this time around,” he said. “But it has to be done carefully. Right now we’re still waiting for the table to be set.”
In a statement, Steve Caldeira, president and chief executiveof the International Franchise Association, said,the IFA “strongly supports the outline for immigration reform issued by the bipartisan group of senators. While there are many details yet to be decided, the basic framework is a significant step toward much-needed comprehensive immigration reform.
“With service sector jobs projected to grow one-and-a-half times faster than non-service sector jobs over the next decade, the IFA looks forward to a workable solution that allows legal immigrant workers into the United States so that our industry can meet the need for lower-skilled workers where franchises businesses are concentrated, such as restaurants, hotels, and service-related businesses,” he said.
While Washington’s attempts to overhaul immigration laws have met with little success, Sen. John McCain, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said he believed “the time is right” for immigration reform.