A 'Failure of Leadership'

Congress flounders on immigration reform, prompting an angry outcry from business and workers

Well, there appears to be one thing that everyone involved in the debate over immigration can agree on: It looks like Washington may let the country down once again.

On June 8, in the wake of the Senate's failure to push forward an immigration reform bill, union groups, high-tech companies, restaurant owners, and contractors all raised their voices in protest. "A clear failure of leadership," says Eliseo Medina, executive vice-president for the Service Employees International Union. "A black eye for Congress and a setback for America," adds Cecilia Martinez, executive director of the nonprofit Reform Institute.

Senate Leaders Promise Progress

The tech industry trade group Compete America urged the Senate to continue working on its reform effort. "Fixing a broken immigration system is essential to U.S. economic and security interests, and the Senate should continue to move forward as soon as possible," said Robert Hoffman, vice-president for government and public affairs at software giant Oracle (ORCL) and co-chair of the group. Other members of Compete America include Intel (INTC), Motorola (MOT), Google (GOOG), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Microsoft (MSFT) (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/26/07, "Immigration Reform: Americans First?").

The reform effort isn't dead just yet. But what happened? The Senate failed late on June 7 to generate enough votes to close discussion of the immigration bill so that a vote on the actual legislation could be taken. It is still possible that after further discussion the Senate could come up with enough votes to push the bill forward. On June 8, Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he has hopes for progress in the weeks ahead. "We are not giving up, we are not giving in," he told reporters.

At least some Republicans in the Senate voiced support for the effort. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) all joined Kennedy in vowing to continue pushing for reform. "We're going to get this done," said Graham.

Proponents of immigration reform say they believe the Senate could yet pass a proposal this summer. "Last night, we suffered quite a blow," said Frank Sharry, head of the National Immigration Forum. But "we have a realistic chance of resurrecting the bill." Asked how long it would take for the senators to return to the immigration issue, Sharry said, "I think we're talking the next three weeks."

Bush to Lobby Capitol Hill

In the next few days, Kyl, one of the Republicans most involved in the Senate bill, and other senators will work to pare down the number of proposed amendments to the bill, estimated at between 80 and 300. On June 12, President George W. Bush intends to make a rare visit to the Capitol, where he will lay out his sales pitch for the legislation to Senate Republicans. The goal is to push Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the bill up for a floor vote before lawmakers break for the July 4 recess.

But even with a personal Capitol Hill lobbying visit from Bush, the chances of immigration reform this year are certainly on the decline. That has business leaders and workers very concerned, because they believe that no action from Congress is worse than what many think is an imperfect bill. Without legislation, business people believe they are likely to get squeezed. "No one should be under the illusion that if we don't get federal legislation the status quo will continue," says John Gay, senior vice-president at the National Restaurant Assn. "[The situation] will get worse."

Mark Gould can provide firsthand testimony. He runs Gould Construction, a heavy construction and highway contractor founded by his father and based in Glenwood Springs, Colo. In an effort to block the employment of illegal immigrants, the state of Colorado has passed legislation tightening the criteria for hiring workers. At the same time, Gould hasn't been able to get temporary workers from abroad because all the visas available under that federal program have been used up. "My labor pool has shrunk," he says, "and I can't hire anyone."

Gould blames the federal government for creating the problem that it now refuses to fix. He says Congress should have created a larger temporary worker program back in 1986, the last time it rewrote the immigration laws. Instead, it ignored the needs of the economy, resulting in the influx of an estimated 12 million undocumented workers. "We would have had 12 million guest workers and we would know who they are," he says.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Gould is furious that Congress may now walk away from the issue. He says companies like his will be squeezed between tighter state regulations and stricter enforcement—and the lack of any federal programs for more workers. "They have decided not to fix this problem," he says. "And if they wait two more years or three more years, it's just going to get worse," (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/2/06, "Immigration: The Lessons of History").

Worker groups sound just as concerned. Medina, from the SEIU, says that "politicians focused on politics instead of public policy." He says that if Congress doesn't take action, it will result in "more raids in the workplace, more deaths on the border, and more frustration."

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