Why immigration reform matters to Minnesota

  • Article by: SHAR KNUTSON and WILLIAM BLAZAR
  • Updated: September 30, 2013 - 9:11 AM
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Audience members listen to President Barack Obama deliver his "Blueprint for Immigration Reform" at Chamizal National Memorial Park in El Paso, Texas in May 2011.

Photo: Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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Dairy farmers from central Minnesota describe how they need immigrants to fill essential positions for which current citizens do not apply. Executives from Ecolab criticize our Byzantine immigration system for the way it limits their ability to attract the world’s best talent.

Despite this demand, our broken system provides little to no legal access to the workforce our state needs to prosper.

Workers are also hurt. Undocumented workers often don’t receive or are unaware of the legal protections and responsibilities afforded to citizens and documented workers. In addition, labor unions report that families are torn apart by federal raids at workplaces. Young children born in the United States come home from school to an empty house not knowing what happened to their parents or if they will ever see them again.

Historically, the economy of the United States has thrived by renewing its workforce and promoting innovation through immigration. For many Minnesota communities, immigration has proven to be a boon — revitalizing school districts, supporting tax bases, and stimulating local economic change and growth.

A soon-to-be-released report from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce found that Minnesota immigrants pay $793 million in state, local and federal taxes annually and fill significant labor needs at both the high- and low-skill ends of the workforce spectrum. In some occupations, immigrants comprise such a high proportion of the workforce that their absence would be devastating.

The time is now to adjust our decades-old immigration laws to fit our modern economy. Business and labor leaders (Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, SEIU and other labor organizations) and faith leaders support comprehensive changes to our immigration system.

Consensus among these disparate voices helped create the momentum that led the U.S. Senate to overwhelmingly pass bipartisan immigration reform. The Senate bill deals with both current problems (for example, earned lawful status for unauthorized immigrants) and future needs (such as a new dynamic work visa system that changes with domestic economic conditions.) The bill is a good start on immigration reform and passed with an impressive 68 votes. Now, the nation awaits serious and committed action in the House of Representatives.

To maximize the positive economic impact of the immigrant workforce in Minnesota, U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen, John Kline, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum should urge their colleagues in the House to address substantive reform. House legislation should provide for an efficient and accurate system of verifying who’s eligible to work alongside a system of temporary work visas that adjusts as the U.S. economy grows and changes. We must also address shortages at both ends of the labor spectrum by creating an adequate number of high-skill visas and a process that allows the 11 million individuals who are now here without authorization to earn legal status.

The House’s path to immigration reform is uncertain at best, making our unified call for action even more urgent. Together, labor, faith and business leaders are encouraging politicians to recognize our increasing diversity as a critical economic engine for the United States and Minnesota. Immigration reform will help replenish our workforce at all skill levels while encouraging more inventors and investors to be Minnesotan and, most important, to create good-paying jobs and wealth in our state.

The world economy is changing Minnesota. Immigrants, as they always have been, are key to converting change into opportunity. But, without reform, our state and the nation lose this ingredient. Our economic history says this loss risks our future prosperity. Our congressional delegation needs your support to match good policy with good politics. Call your representatives today. Ask them to support and vote for comprehensive immigration reform.

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Shar Knutson is president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. William Blazar is senior vice president of public affairs and business development for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

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