Immigration reform sputtered in the U.S. House in August, but the breadth of the coalition that supports some kind of reform gives Bill Blazar some encouragement.
Blazar, the second-in-command at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, has been making the case for immigration reform across the state, and recently wrote a joint op-ed with leadership from the AFL-CIO, a group with whom the chamber is not always in agreement.
Blazar answered a few questions on the topic last week.
Q: Why is immigration reform so important for Minnesota’s economy?
A: The immigrant role in the economy is broader than as a worker. A lot of Minnesota businesses get started by people who weren’t born here, and as much as the state’s economy has changed, we still depend a lot on the start-up and success of new companies. When you just think about the contributions of immigrants as entrepreneurs, certainly as workers as well, but also as consumers and as a bridge to the world economy, ours is purely an economic argument.
Q: What will happen to the state economy if we can’t get more immigrants to move to Minnesota?
A: Now that the economy has got some strength, I think it becomes a more pressing issue. The demographics don’t change. I’m going to get a day older today regardless of how the economy does, and everybody else in my worker age cohort is going to get a day older. All those baby boomers are going to retire, that’s going to happen, so I would think as you move forward here the next 10 years, especially if the economy continues to show some strength, the worker issue becomes more pressing. More Minnesota businesses will confront those three choices: Do we automate, do we grow elsewhere, or do our elected leaders give us a reformed and functional immigration system? If somebody gives you a big order and you can’t fill it because you don’t have enough people, you’re not going to put up with that for too long.
Q: What do you hear from Minnesota businesses?
A: When Minnesota companies have difficulties filling their openings, that frustration makes them more sensitive to some of the other challenges of doing business in Minnesota. Then they start scratching their heads and saying, ‘Why am I paying some of the higher taxes in the country?’ It sort of brings to the surface some of the other warts on our state’s economic environment. That workforce is really our big, big, big selling point. You look at our demographics. We’ve got an aging population, and the rate of growth in the workforce declines until 2030. Their challenge of finding workers is going to be with us for the next 15 years, which puts some urgency on having a functional immigration system.
Q: Why can’t the U.S. House pass immigration reform?
A: Oh I think they will. I think they’ll pass it through. They’re hearing from enough disparate corners. They’re hearing from business, from faith communities, the legal community, the educators. Will they get it done this month or next month? Probably not. But right now they’re on a path that’s much more likely to produce reform than at any time since President Bush tried in 2006.
Q: What’s wrong with the H-1B visa program?
A: It’s not in sync with the economy. The economy really depends on technical skills and innovation, and that’s what the H-1B visa is designed to address and those visas are fixed at a level that’s well below what the economy needs. The Senate bill redoes that system, not just H-1B but a bunch of other visas, so that the number of visas is going to rise and fall with changes in economic conditions, and doing that is critical so you and I are not having this same conversation five years from now.
Q: Can you talk about your alliance with the AFL-CIO on this issue? Is it strange to work on the same side of an issue with labor unions?
A: It happens, at least in Minnesota, more often than folks might think. Whether it’s business or labor, we’re both interested in helping the economy change and grow, and immigrants are a key part of that equation. So it’s logical that we would be working together.