- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Catering to Washington's power elite who often stay or attend dinners at the Washington Hilton is no small task, one that relies heavily on immigrant labor to carry luggage, wait on tables and clean the rooms.
Bill Edwards Jr., the hotel general manager, said the hotel's human resources department doesn't keep track of how many workers are immigrants. But he guesses it's probably a "tremendous" percentage of his 900 employees who speak 38 different languages.
"We have every religion, every race, every language almost in the world represented here in one fashion or another," Mr. Edwards said. The hotel offers English as a second language classes to employees.
At least right now, Mr. Edwards has a full staff, but it hasn't always been that way.
Over the past decade, when the economy was particularly vigorous and unemployment low, the hotel relied heavily on the government's J-1 work visa program to pull middle managers in from other countries — managers who were sometimes shipped home when those visas ran out. That inconsistency in management has posed an occasional challenge.
The hotel is illustrative of one business sector that has become increasingly dependent on immigrant labor over the past decade, and that is now part of a powerful coalition pressing the government to ease immigration rules and grant legal status to millions of workers, many of whom are in the United States now illegally.
"Current immigration laws are not responsive to the legitimate needs of employers and the nation's future economic interests," Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said last month after a meeting with Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge G. Castaneda.
Business leaders said the full-court press to ease immigration policy might help avoid a looming economic crisis posed by worker shortages. By 2008, the U.S. economy will produce 161 million jobs, but there will be only 154 million American workers, according to the Chamber.
Led by the Chamber, a powerful coalition of businesses calling itself the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition has helped heat up the biggest immigration debate in Washington since the mid-1980s, just as the Republican Party is reconsidering the politically enticing and exponentially powerful Hispanic vote.
"We believe a comprehensive solution is needed that would address not just new workers, but workers who are already here," Theresa Brown, manager of labor and immigration policy at the Chamber, said. That solution should include a program that will lead to permanent legal status for some immigrants at the end of a guest-worker program.
"If somebody wants to stay and an employer wants to keep them, that should be allowed," she said.
And that is exactly where a usually congenial relationship between the powerful business lobby and some Republicans in Congress gets a little rocky.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, and Republicans like Sen. Phil Gramm and Rep. Lamar Smith, both of Texas, have said they would allow a guest-worker program, but are ready to fight any plan that "rewards" illegal immigrants with permanent amnesty afterward.
"I happen to believe we have an illegal immigration problem of huge proportions," said Mr. Tancredo, the leader of theRepublican congressional Immigration reform caucus. "You have to ask yourself, 'Does amnesty help solve that problem?' The answer is that it does not."
President Bush is now trying to decide which immigrants will get legal status, and whether that status will be temporary or permanent. A high-profile meeting on that issue is expected between Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox in Washington beginning today.
While Mr. Bush has publicly said he would not advocate immediate, "blanket amnesty" for illegal immigrants, he has not made it clear whether some immigrants might get legal status at the end of a guest-worker program.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Hispanic community are working alongside the business leaders on this mutually beneficial issue.
"We want that legalization program to be fair, to be limited, to be as generous as we can probably make it. That is the bottom line," National Council of La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre said.
In a bizarre alliance, major labor unions, including the AFL-CIO, are also working with the business coalition. Businesses need the immigrant labor, and powerful labor unions now see millions of immigrants as new members as opposed to a threat to the job security of their existing members.
"These employers need immigrants. If they do not have immigrants, they go out of business," Service Employees International Union Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina said. "Turnover is very expensive."


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