Some doubt­ing bill’s help­ful­ness

Im­mi­gra­tion pro­posal at is­sue

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DAN HOLTMEYER

Dave Sar­gent, a 77-yearold veg­etable farmer near Prairie Grove, sup­ports Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and other Republicans’ ef­forts to cut off il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. His voice rose when he said he wants the govern­ment to do more to pre­vent tem­po­rary agri­cul­ture work­ers from coun­tries to the south from over­stay­ing their visas.

But he splits with an Ar­kan­sas sen­a­tor and other Republicans on at least one point: He doesn’ t be­lieve na­tive-born work­ers would take the place of the two or three dozen im­mi­grants he hired to har­vest hun­dreds of acres last year,

in­creas­ingly us­ing con­vey- or belts and other ma­chines he put to­gether be­cause he found too few work­ers.

“You can’t hire an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, a white per­son or black, to work in the fields. You can’t,” Sar­gent said, re­call­ing a cou­ple of non­im­mi­grants he once hired who lasted an hour or two be­fore leav­ing. He blamed Amer­i­cans’ lazi­ness and said he would hire peo­ple of any na­tion­al­ity who can do the job and legally work.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton, R-Ark., ear­lier this month in­tro­duced a bill to slash the num­ber of le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dents, of­ten called green card hold­ers, ad­mit­ted each year from about 1 mil­lion to about 500,000 within the next decade. He part­nered with Sen. David Per­due, R-Ga., on the bill, which comes amid Trump’s prom­ises to ex­tend and for­tify the south­ern bor­der fence and ex­pand im­mi­gra­tion law en­force­ment.

Cot­ton’s pri­mary ar­gu­ment is most of the im­mi­grants go into rel­a­tively lowskilled jobs in agri­cul­ture or meat-pack­ing that would oth­er­wise go to res­i­dents and do so for less pay, keep­ing wages low for that part of the work­force, ac­cord­ing to a news re­lease on the pro­posal and Cot­ton’s pub­lic state­ments since.

Re­searchers and busi­ness own­ers in North­west Ar­kan­sas, how­ever, said jobs are not a zero-sum game and im­mi­grants have been im­por­tant, even in­dis­pens­able, for the re­gion’s econ­omy.

“I think our econ­omy here would be par­a­lyzed,” said Fadil Bay­yari, a phi­lan­thropist and CEO of Bay­yari Prop­er­ties and Con­struc­tion. His work­force is at least half His­panic, he said, with im­mi­grants who work at ev­ery skill level and couldn’t be re­placed within the area’s la­bor pool.

“We live in a na­tion of im­mi­grants, whether we want to ac­cept it or not. They’re the ones who built it, the ones who will con­tinue to build it,” said Bay­yari, him­self a Pales­tinian-Amer­i­can.

NEW LIM­ITS

Cot­ton’s pro­posal would achieve its goals partly by tak­ing away adult cit­i­zens’ and le­gal res­i­dents’ abil­ity to spon­sor their adult par­ents, adult sib­lings and adult chil­dren who wish to join them here. They still would be able to spon­sor spouses and mi­nor chil­dren.

Fam­ily ties ac­counted for two-thirds of the 1 mil­lion le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dents ac­cepted in fis­cal 2013, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 re­port from the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, which an­a­lyzes poli­cies for mem­bers of Congress.

Fam­ily spon­sor­ship can take years or decades. A Mex­i­can whose par­ents legally live in the U. S. and ap­plied to join them in 1995 would just now be ap­proved, for ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est U.S. State De­part­ment visa bul­letin.

Cot­ton said at a Springdale town hall last week his re­stric­tions wouldn’t af­fect the 150,000 or so le­gal res­i­dents who come with em­ploy­ment-based visas to work at typ­i­cally high-skill po­si­tions

with spe­cific com­pa­nies, and the United States would re­main the most gen­er­ous coun­try in the world for im­mi­grant ad­mis­sions.

He said ear­lier this month wages for high school dropouts and grad­u­ates have dropped for decades and im­mi­gra­tion was part of the rea­son, though he ac­knowl­edged au­to­ma­tion and other changes are also in­volved.

“It’s pulling the rug out from un­der­neath them, and un­less we re­verse this trend, we’re go­ing to cre­ate a near-per­ma­nent un­der­class for whom the Amer­i­can dream is just out of reach,” Cot­ton told re­porters.

Ge­orge Bor­jas, an eco­nomics pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Kennedy School of Govern­ment, ar­gues for this per­spec­tive, point­ing to the ba­sic prin­ci­ple a larger pool of work­ers low­ers de­mand and pay. Im­mi­grants who agree to lower pay re­duce wages by tens of bil­lions of dol­lars for non­im­mi­grants, he ar­gued in a 2013 re­port for the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, which ad­vo­cates lim­it­ing im­mi­gra­tion.

The bill also would cap refugee ac­cep­tance at 50,000 a year, sim­i­lar to the av­er­age dur­ing Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, but 28 per­cent lower than Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s av­er­age. Refugees also can work in the coun­try legally.

A re­quest for com­ment on the pro­posal wasn’t re­turned by the of­fice of U.S. Sen. John Booz­man, R-Ark. Cot­ton’s of­fice re­ferred to his pre­vi­ous state­ments in re­sponse to ques­tions.

POW­ER­ING GROWTH

Other re­search found a more com­pli­cated pic­ture.

The Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, which an­a­lyzes the im­pact of pro­pos­als, found a failed bi­par­ti­san 2013 im­mi­gra­tion re­form law al­low­ing a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in le­gal im­mi­gra­tion would chip all wages down by 0.1 per­cent at first be­cause of all the new work­ers, but would raise them five times as much by 2033 as they fed earn­ings back into the econ­omy.

Con­struc­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ing and other busi­nesses in Ar­kan­sas saved $147 mil­lion in wages a year with im­mi­grant la­bor, sup­port­ing part of Cot­ton’s ar­gu­ment, a 2013 re­port by Lit­tle Rock’s Winthrop Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion found. But the same im­mi­grants con­trib­ute bil­lions of dol­lars to the econ­omy, in­clud­ing al­most $1 bil­lion in Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties, by spend­ing what they earn and sus­tain­ing other jobs, the re­port states.

“This la­bor has al­lowed the state’s eco­nomic out­put to ex­pand; in its ab­sence, a sub­stan­tial por­tion of Ar­kan­sas’ eco­nomic vi­tal­ity would likely have dis­ap­peared,” the re­port found.

Econ­o­mist Kathy Deck, who di­rects the Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas’ Cen­ter for Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search, like­wise said Tyson Foods and other ma­jor driv­ers of the re­gion’s econ­omy prob­a­bly wouldn’t have grown to their size with­out im­mi­grants.

Most of North­west Ar­kan­sas’ im­mi­grants are His­panic, an eth­nic group that in­cludes more than 80,000 in the metropoli­tan area, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus es­ti­mates. One-third of His­panic work­ers have clus­tered in trans­porta­tion or in pro­duc­tion at Tyson and sim­i­lar com­pa­nies, twice the rate of the over­all pop­u­la­tion. An­other 18 per­cent work in con­struc­tion or main­te­nance, al­most twice the over­all rate.

The con­cen­tra­tion is even more pro­nounced among the smaller Mar­shallese com­mu­nity, where nearly three in five work­ers are in pro­duc­tion or trans­porta­tion.

“The fact that we have a con­cen­tra­tion of folks who have ex­pe­ri­ence with poul­try pro­cess­ing or con­struc­tion or what­ever it is means that those sec­tors can grow more quickly than they would in an­other area,” she said, adding the re­gion’s un­em­ploy­ment rate has long been too low to sug­gest lots of peo­ple would have taken the jobs oth­er­wise.

Pop­u­la­tion growth also helps sus­tain the Ra­zor­back Green­way, mu­se­ums, hos­pi­tals and other ameni­ties, Deck said.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to im­prove the over­all pros­per­ity of a re­gion if the pie is not grow­ing,” she said.

JOBS AND EARN­INGS

The re­gion’s un­em­ploy­ment rate is be­low 3 per­cent and grow­ing de­mand has kept wages high re­gard­less of who’s tak­ing the job, said Phil Jones, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer at C.R. Craw­ford Con­struc­tion. The firm hires only U.S.-born or nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zens, but about one in five work­ers at C.R. Craw­ford and its con­crete sub­sidiary are for­mer im­mi­grants or part of im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, he said.

“Our in­dus­try is so com­pet­i­tive, that re­ally no mat­ter whether some­one is an im­mi­grant, first gen­er­a­tion, sec­ond gen­er­a­tion, what­ever it might be, they’re go­ing to be paid a com­pet­i­tive wage be­cause that’s what our in­dus­try de­mands right now,” he said. With­out them, “you would not see the growth or the abil­ity to sus­tain the con­struc­tion pace in North­west Ar­kan­sas.”

Tyson and Ge­orge’s Chicken didn’t re­turn re­quests for com­ment about Cot­ton’s pro­posal, but Tyson has said it’s proud of its di­ver­sity and of­ten points out its be­gin­ning pay is above min­i­mum wage and in­cludes re­tire­ment, va­ca­tion and health ben­e­fits.

Sar­gent, the Prairie Grove farmer, said he paid his tem­po­rary work­ers $14 an hour.

Im­mi­grants’ chil­dren and grand­chil­dren also tend to move into higher- skilled, higher pay­ing jobs and in­dus­tries as they set­tle in, ex­pand­ing and di­ver­si­fy­ing their eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tions, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter and other re­searchers.

Be­cause of all of these fac­tors, Cot­ton’s pro­posal is the wrong di­rec­tion, said Mireya Reith, di­rec­tor of the Ar­kan­sas United Com­mu­nity Coali­tion that ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants.

“None of his pro­pos­als ad­dress the bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem,” she said.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER

Jac­que­line Perez of Springdale holds a sign Wednes­day at a town hall meet­ing held by Sen. Tom Cot­ton, R-Ark., at Springdale High School’s Pat Walker Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter.

Cot­ton

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