Overhauling Immigration Is Big Business, Too

Only 3 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants work on farms. Five times as many fill construction jobs and ten times as many are in the service sector. Those businesses stand to benefit from the immigration plan.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm John Ydstie.

The White House and a bipartisan group of senators are hailing a compromise on immigration reform as a breakthrough, so, too, are businesses that depend on immigrant workers to harvest crops, put up drywall or clean hotel rooms. But companies looking to hire foreigners with high-tech skills are less excited about the plan.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: California Farm Bureau President Doug Mosebar says it was a big day when the White House and key senators reached an agreement on immigration. Their plan would allow millions of undocumented workers already in the U.S. to remain here on probationary status and open a door for hundreds of thousands of additional guest workers in the future.

For Mosebar who raises hay, cattle and flowers in the Santa Ynez Valley that means a reliable supply of labor, something farmers have been itching for.

Mr. DOUG MOSEBAR (President, California Farm Bureau): Last year, there were several crops that didn't get fully harvested, even some crops that didn't get harvested at all because of the lack of labor supply. Farmers can only stand that for so long and then we have less of that crop available and less farmland besides.

HORSLEY: But farmers are only a small part of the story. Only about three percent of the nation's illegal immigrants work on farms. A 2005 study by the Pew Hispanic Center found five times that many work in construction and more than 10 times as many work in the service sector.

Larry Rohlfes of the California Landscaping Contractors Association says all of these industries stand to benefit from a plan that legitimizes their existing workforce and makes room for more workers to come in.

Mr. LARRY ROHLFES (Assistant Executive Director, California Landscaping Contractors Association): For whatever reason, American-born workers are not taking jobs in the landscape industry probably because it's hard work.

HORSLEY: Rohlfes says entry-level landscaping jobs typically pay $2 an hour above the minimum wage. The immigration plan endorsed this week would allow up to 400,000 low-skilled workers to enter the U.S. on temporary work permits each year. The guest worker program would only go into effect, though, after certain border security milestones are achieved.

The plan has less to offer to high-tech employers looking to hire engineers and other skilled workers from abroad. Ralph Hellman of the Information Technology Industry Council says these employers have very different needs than their low-tech counterparts.

Mr. RALPH HELLMAN (Lobbyist, Information Technology Industry Council): This is not like the agriculture industry or construction, you know, where you can have different workers come for a couple of years and then have different workers come two years later. These are people who are experts that if they don't get a permanent green card here in the United States, they're going to go to our competitors.

HORSLEY: High-skilled workers would have a somewhat better chance of getting a green card under the proposal than they do under the current system, which is primarily based on family connections. More temporary work visas would also be available. Nevertheless, Hellman complains the plan's provisions for high-tech workers are far shy what the industry needs.

Mr. HELLMAN: Is it a modest upward, you know, adjustment? Yeah. But is it enough? Maybe not.

HORSLEY: Owners of small businesses are also concerned about the plan's requirement for employers to verify workers' immigration status. The White House promises new and faster tools for employers to check working papers and stiff penalties for those who fail to do so.

Mike Donahue of the National Federation of Independent Business worries that could pose a serious burden for companies that don't have big HR departments to comply.

Mr. MIKE DONAHUE (Senior Media Manager, National Federation of Independent Business): We've recognized that employee verification is a necessary ingredient of such a comprehensive measure. What we have to make sure, though, is that it recognizes the differences between a small business and a big business.

HORSLEY: Employers of all sizes and stripes agree the prospects for the immigration plan will depend on its details, some of which are yet to be made public. Farmer Doug Mosebar says they're still a long way to go, but he feels a deal is closer now than it has been in a long time.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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