by Howard Stephenson
by Howard Stephenson
|In the past six columns we have reported the frustration we and many others in Utah deeply feel about the United States Government’s deplorable inaction and repulsive lack of responsibility on the issue of illegal immigration. We have demonstrated that due to Utah’s high job growth rate, our low unemployment rate and a myriad of other factors, our state economy of necessity requires an immigration policy that allows for a sufficient number of legal temporary guest workers to fill essential jobs. We have also pleaded that Congress promptly provide a policy that enables these needed immigrants to come to our state in a manner that is humane, legal, which includes enforceable guidelines, and which eliminates the current unjust cost shifting to taxpayers; aspects that are all pervasively problematic with the current immigration system. Yet, despite this blatant need for an overhaul of the immigration structure, the U.S. Congress continues to refuse to take any action on this disconcerting issue.
Apparently acting out of the same frustration that we experience over Congress’ failure to take steps to improve immigration policies, President George W. Bush and his administration announced new plans last week to crack down on illegal immigration. The new reforms, according to the White House, “represent steps the Administration can take within the boundaries of existing law to secure our borders more effectively, improve interior and worksite enforcement, streamline existing guest worker programs, improve the current immigration system, and help new immigrants assimilate into American culture.” U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez even stated almost verbatim what we have been arguing for weeks during the press conference in which the new initiatives were announced. He affirmed, “We do not have the workers our economy needs to keep growing each year. The demographics simply are not on our side. Ultimately, Congress will have to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Congress and the President need marriage counseling
Despite this admission from the Bush Administration about America’s demographics, the initiatives that the Administration introduced disappointingly do not align with what our country truly needs in immigration reform. In what could prove to be disastrous for the U.S. economy, the Administration shied away from instituting policies that permit employers a legal means of obtaining guest workers, and instead initiated guidelines that are so focused on enforcement that even members of the Administration were forced to admit that the new actions will more than likely hurt our nation’s economy. For instance, as reported by The Los Angeles Times, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff predicted, “There will be some unhappy consequences for the economy out of doing this.” He also conceded in other reports that, “There’s going to be an economic consequence to tough law enforcement.”
Since the announcement of the new policies, Secretary Chertoff and his department have shown that they are not apologetic about the severe steps they are about to take. Mr. Chertoff has gone so far as to assert that (somehow, we suppose through clairvoyance) businesses should have seen the steps the Administration is taking coming! Moreover, Homeland Security Department Spokesman Russ Knocke was quoted in Business Weekly as sanctimoniously declaring, “Now there is an opportunity to do the right thing or the wrong thing. And if employers do the wrong thing, they’re really going to regret it.”
What rogue employers could regret if they fail to comply with the new policies outlined by the Bush Administration are penalties which include fines up to $11,000 per unauthorized worker and up to six months of jail time. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in our previous columns, Congress and the Bush Administration have refused to provide a way for employers to “do the right thing.”
Punishing children for their parents’ bad marriage
Sadly, in a distressing catch-22 circumstance, employers in many U.S. industries will not only regret not conforming to the new rules, they will also likely regret adhering to the new restrictions as well. This is because, effective immediately, the Administrations’ new policies include mandating employers to release employees whose names are inconsistent with their given Social Security Number within 90 days of receiving a “no-match” letter from the Social Security Administration. This would be workable for the American economy except that the Administration has not included in their policies a way for employers to replenish the laborers they are required to let go with legal workers. These new restrictions are meant to, in the words of Mr. Chertoff, “choke off the jobs ‘magnet’ that draws illegal immigrants.”
Why would the Executive Branch of our Federal Government knowingly take such drastic steps when they recognize that such actions will severely hurt the U.S. economy? One speculation is that the Administration is trying to create a national environment that will become so uncomfortable for U.S. employers that the U.S. Congress will be forced to take action in the immigration arena. But, one must ask, is this really the manner in which we want our Federal Government to operate? Do we really want the executive branch to force the legislative branch into action by imposing regulations so harsh on American industries that the economy is imperiled? Is that really how government is supposed to function? Is there no way in our American system to come to a reasonable compromise whereby employers are provided the legal guest workers they need while at the same time enforcing realistic immigration laws? It is a sad state of affairs for Americans if such is not the case.
The pot calls the kettle black
On a side note, it will be interesting to see if the federal government holds itself to the regulations it is imposing on others. The authors of this article have found out through our research that in at least one of the federal buildings here in Salt Lake City, the janitorial staff is subcontracted to an independent janitorial provider whose staff, according to an employee of the janitorial service, is made up 100% of immigrants, 99% of whom are Hispanic. Consequently, in another immigration irony, federal workers have their buildings cleaned and maintained by an immigrant workforce, many of whom could be the very people the Bush administration is trying to deport. In their crackdown, we wonder if they will start first with federal building janitorial service providers. Incidentally, we’ve also learned that the state capitol complex janitorial services are also provided by immigrants.
Consequences of crackdowns when compliance is not allowed
A far more significant point than whether the Federal government will be hypocritical about its immigration policies is this: While the Bush Administration couches who the new regulations will harm with vast and impersonal terms such as “the economy,” it should be noted that these new policies will undoubtedly hurt individual American citizens and the businesses they operate. What will happen, for instance, to the Utah farmer who already worries, frets and considers giving up his livelihood due to his struggles to find sufficient laborers come harvest time, when he cannot employ anyone to gather his crops because his source of labor has been completely “choked off” by the new regulations? How will the independent Utah restaurant owner keep her restaurant operating when – due to extremely low unemployment rates – she cannot find enough willing workers to staff her restaurant? Or, how will Utah’s general contractors and employers in Utah’s burgeoning construction industry produce the buildings demanded of them without a substantial percentage of their builders and laborers who have been lost due to the new restrictions?
The sad, short answer to all of these questions is that none of these employers will be able to continue their operations without a labor force that is legally restocked once their original workers are gone! According to the demographics, just as the Administration pointed out, we simply need substantial immigrant labor in our country! Consequently, if our immigrant laborers are taken away, it will not just hurt “the economy” as the Administration would have Americans believe; no, on a far more personal level, it will devastate American employers in our critical U.S. industries. It is for these reasons that we plead with our federal government to find a way to legally replenish our critical immigrant workforce as they crack down on illegal immigration so that our American employers can continue in their valuable professions.
Can the federal government manage millions of legal guest workers?
Unfortunately, even if Congress were to provide for ten million or more legal guest worker visas, it is painfully obvious that the federal government is incapable of managing that magnitude of visitors without a new, cumbersome, expensive bureaucracy. Next week we will outline our proposal for providing adequate monitoring of
Guest workers are critical to Utah’s hospitality industry
The statistics relating to the growth in both the United States’ and Utah’s restaurant industries are phenomenal. For instance, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the restaurant industry has grown from an industry producing $42.8 billion dollars a year nationwide in 1970, to one that boasts a projected $536.9 billion in sales in 2007. That amount represents more than $1.5 billion in sales a day! Remarkably, the NRA reported that, “Including the impact restaurants have on sales in related industries, the industry’s overall impact on the U.S. economy is $1.3 trillion a year.” Moreover, according to Melva Sine, President of the Utah Restaurant Association, Americans now spend approximately 52% of their household food budget eating out. That number has doubled since ten years ago when the figure was between 24% and 26%. Obviously, Americans enjoy dining out.
Utah’s restaurant industry numbers are also fascinating, because according to Mrs. Sine, while the average American eats out seven times a week, Utahns dine out only four times a week. Nonetheless, the Utah restaurant industry job growth rate, consistent with the rest of our state’s job growth rate, outpaces the restaurant industry’s rate nationwide: the growth rate is 1.9% in the U.S. versus 2.8% here in Utah. Thus, while we in Utah on average do not go out to eat as often as the rest of America, we dine out often enough to keep the restaurant industry growing quickly in our state.
The increasing growth has a huge impact on restaurant employers. The U.S. restaurant industry currently employs over 12 million people nationwide, a number that is expected to increase to 14.8 million in ten years. Currently in Utah there is an estimated 98,000 restaurant and food service employees working in any of the over 4,000 eating and drinking establishments in our state. Based on research from the NRA, the people employed in the restaurant and foodservice industry make up 8% of the total employment in Utah. Significantly, the 98,000 figure is estimated to increase an enormous 23.1% by 2017, when an estimated 121,600 people are predicted to work in the industry.
It is apparent from all of these figures that numerous employees are needed, and will continue to be needed, by restaurant employers to keep food production and supply on par with the high demand. Notably, the restaurant industry is extremely labor intensive with about 40% of the work labeled unskilled labor. Furthermore, there is roughly a 70% turnover in the industry, so restaurants are frequently seeking new employees.
As a result of the huge demand for employees, the high turnover rate and the unskilled nature of some of the work, the restaurant industry has become a well-suited trade for many immigrant guest workers to find employment. For example, Mrs. Sine stated that the percentage of Hispanic workers in the restaurant industry has grown from 11% or 12% three of four years ago to 23% today. However, as is the case with agri-business, the construction industry and the various other sectors in the economy that we have described in this series, literally countless numbers of the immigrants currently employed in the restaurant industry are not legally authorized to work in the United States. And while much of the condemnation for the restaurant industry’s reliance on illegal immigrants is aimed at the restaurant industry itself, much of the evidence shows that the true blame for this dilemma lies with the federal government because of their continued failure to fix our nation’s broken guest worker policy.
Restaurants cannot verify legal status of workers without federal cooperation
For instance, in a stunning observation, Mrs. Sine noted that the fraudulent documents brought in by “undocumented workers” are so well forged that it is terribly difficult to decipher what is real and what is not. Furthermore, illegal immigrants employed in the restaurant industry are fully aware that they have between six and nine months to work at a particular restaurant before officials report back to the restaurant employer about their false documentation. Thus, by the time the federal bureaucrats with the Social Security Administration inform a certain restaurant that they must release an employee because their documentation failed, that unauthorized employee had already left that establishment months ago and is most likely working elsewhere. Mrs. Sine persisted in her critique of the current immigration system by asking: “that Social Security Number [the stolen number that the administration took over six months to report] is bound to pop up somewhere else again soon, why not follow up right then? Why is it our fault that the government takes so long to let us [the restaurant employers] know that our employee’s documentation is fraudulent?”
A second place that the federal government has failed is by forcing restaurant employers in to a no-win situation when it comes to hiring practices. Restaurant employers want to follow the law in their hiring practices for one major reason: most eating establishments do not have the money to pay the fines that accompany knowingly hiring individuals unauthorized to work in this country. The dilemma that arises, however, is that no restaurant employers have the time or the right to test every questionable applicant that submits an application. As explained several times in this series, the threat of discrimination charges are a very real concern for Utah employers, including those in the restaurant industry. Moreover, restaurant owners just do not have the time –among their various other responsibilities- to wait weeks for a confirmation of an applicant’s documentation when there is a need for that employee at that very moment. As avowed by Mrs. Sine, “We hang up the ‘now hiring signs’ and hire the individual willing to take the job. That is our responsibility. But it is the federal government’s responsibility to enable us to verify a person’s legal status. We cannot accomplish this alone. We are not miracle workers.”
The American restaurant industry has become a critical part of our nation’s economy due to its sheer size and the large numbers of people in employs. As such, the industry needs legal immigrant employees, and yet, as has repeatedly been the case with other industries, the federal government balks at its responsibility to equip this important industry with an acceptable guest worker policy that is so desperately essential. We again call for support in demanding that the federal government fulfill its responsibility in repairing the current guest worker program so that American employers – such as those in the restaurant industry – can find the workers they need in sufficient numbers, and in a way that is humane and legal.