Sunday, July 12, 2009

Though we are a nation of immigrants, many of us are wary of Americans who derive from ethnicities other than our own.

Even Benjamin Franklin was deeply concerned that Pennsylvania was being overrun by German immigrants. “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English,” Franklin wrote, “become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or our Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

Franklin suggested laws restricting the admission of Germans into Pennsylvania and encouraging them to settle in other Colonies.

What if he had succeeded? America would have lost the benefit of the contributions of generations of citizens. Fear and concern are natural responses to what seems different and alien, but applying logic and compassion to any problem is a better way.

On June 17, the White House began a new discussion with members of Congress on immigration reform. To ensure a meaningful dialogue, the business community must participate actively — seeking and sharing in the development of a rational and sensible solution to this complex problem.

There is a mountain of evidence that extreme positions of this debate — amnesty or mass deportation — are impractical at best and therefore inherently obstructionist. The result of both approaches means continuing adherence to the existing fractured laws and no end to either the problem or the debate. Any approach that does not recognize market realities and labor demands will fail.

Americans for Immigration Reform, the only business-sponsored advocate for a sound and balanced approach to immigration reform, is based in Houston, one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world. Houston is home to more than 3,000 international businesses, government offices and nonprofit organizations. More than half of the world’s 100 largest non-U.S. corporations have operations in the region. Eighty-eight foreign countries have consulates in Houston.

More than 1 million Houstonians are foreign-born. It has been said that if you want to see what America will look like in 2060, look at Houston. Our businesses are uniquely situated to learn how to cope and thrive in a changing world. We already are there.

The concern of Houston employers — and employers all across the country — goes far beyond undocumented, unskilled workers subsisting on low wages. Businesses are even more concerned, for instance, about visa shortages for highly educated workers in white-collar professions such as engineering.

Foreigners account for half of all master’s-level engineering students and almost two-thirds of doctoral students. Yet the shortage of H-1B visas prevents many from finding long-term U.S. jobs. As a result, these trained engineers take their education, apply it in another country and compete against our interests.

Popular rhetoric declares that illegal immigrants take jobs, depress wages and burden taxpayers by taking advantage of public-education and social-welfare programs. Though no illegal immigrant is eligible for welfare, these concerns are valid and should be addressed. Texas economist Ray Perryman, in a study commissioned by Americans for Immigration Reform, demonstrates that if all undocumented workers were removed abruptly from our economy, many industries would suffer an immediate worker shortage. Even if every unemployed citizen sought jobs in agriculture, hospitality, construction and other industries, the need would not be filled.

America also would lose the spending power of these millions of workers — and their taxes. Mr. Perryman estimates that 50 percent to 75 percent of undocumented workers pay taxes. If all illegal immigrants were removed tomorrow (a logistical impossibility, anyway) our economy would lose $1.76 trillion in annual spending and $651.5 billion in annual output.

Most American businesses seek a balanced, judicious and practical program of reform that includes:

c Secure borders.

c An efficient and effective program for temporary workers.

c A fast, reliable employment-verification system.

c Holding employers responsible for hiring employees with legal status.

c A realistic policy to deal with illegal immigrants already here.

The time is now to resolve our immigration mess — not by engaging in ugly, bitter arguments and name-calling that result in no legislative progress, but rather by enlisting all Americans in the struggle to find solutions that will work for all of us.

What would Franklin think of America today? Clearly, we are the greatest nation on earth, and the values and principles that formed our republic with our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and its Bill of Rights live strong today.

We may not look like the purist nation some may have anticipated. However, all should agree we are a vibrant and exciting society because people from many lands built together a more perfect union.

Alberto P. Cardenas Jr. is an attorney with Vinson & Elkins LLP and is executive counsel to Americans for Immigration Reform. The organization was founded by leaders of the Greater Houston Partnership and its Immigration Task Force.

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