Industries back illegals plan

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Important American industries including top Republican campaign contributors see President Bush’s proposal to create a foreign guest-worker program as the best way to address labor shortages in their fields.

Employers from farm and construction work to restaurateurs and Main Street stores say the current system that allows millions of illegal workers to enter the country and work under the table for subminimum wages is not serving businesses or workers well.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million small businesses across the country, supports the plan as a simple acknowledgment of reality: Despite strict rules against hiring illegal workers, the practice is widespread and growing.

“Our immigration system is broken,” said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the Chamber of Commerce. “Our immigration and visa policy must ensure employers are able to fill jobs critical to our economy when American workers are not available.”

The plan would allow U.S. employers to fill job openings with qualified workers from other countries if Americans are unwilling to take the jobs. It also would provide temporary work permits to an estimated 8 million undocumented workers already in the country.

Businesses that stand to benefit from tapping into a potentially huge pool of cheap foreign labor are major donors and political activists campaigning for the president, helping him to set fund-raising records early in the 2004 campaign cycle.

Even some businesses that have been caught in the Bush administration’s enforcement net for employing undocumented workers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., contribute largely to President Bush and Republican causes, though Democrats traditionally have provided the political base of support for immigration-reform legislation.

Mr. Bush and other advocates of such legislation say providing a legal avenue for immigrant labor would enable the government to focus its enforcement efforts on the most pressing threats from abroad: terrorism and illegal drugs.

Underground economy

Advocates say it also would take a step toward redressing some of the hardships faced by workers trapped in the illegal underground economy.

“The way it is now, the aliens stand on street corners and take what they can get,” accepting pay as low as $4 an hour with no insurance or other benefits, said “M.A.,” the owner of a New Mexico contracting company that installs home spas.

Employers not only get away with paying illegal workers less than the $5.15 federal minimum wage, but they don’t pay the workers’ income or Social Security taxes, said the contractor, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used.

Despite the hardship for workers, employers take advantage of their inexpensive labor because they save so much money, said M.A., who employs about 65 people, both legal and illegal, at 10 locations in the Southwest.

The Washington area has attracted many undocumented workers because of the booming housing market and the higher wages available here. Contractors and homeowners alike cruise by street corners in Langley Park, Springfield, Alexandria and other areas where immigrant workers gather and can be hired on the spot.

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