America has always prided itself on being a “melting pot,” that is to say a mixture of races and cultures who, as a whole, embody what America is all about and are free to pursue life, liberty and happiness under the protection of the various rights listed in the Constitution. But the U.S. government has also recognized the need to control the flow of immigrants into the country so as to ensure that laws aren't broken and that these immigrants have the same chance of achieving happiness as a natural born American citizen.
But not everyone agrees on how this should be done, as the recent debate on immigration reform attests. What everyone does generally agree upon is that immigrants are an essential element in keeping the American economy strong, from fast food businesses to the high-tech industry, and fill an intrinsic need in the labor force. This is especially true in the green industry, comprised of nurseries, landscape companies and grounds organizations, the leaders of which are finding it increasingly hard to fill low-wage high-labor jobs from within the United States and must seek foreign labor, predominantly from Mexico, to satisfy this need.
When you talk to the owners of landscape companies, they quickly impress on you that they would be out of business without access to foreign labor. They claim that Americans, mostly younger ones who are most capable of performing the back-breaking duties of a landscape laborer, are simply not willing to work that hard for $7 to $8 per hour. They say that those young Americans normally opt for the same wages at a less demanding job that might have the comforts of air-conditioning or at least saves them from having to perform intense physical labor. Proof, they say, is in unanswered help wanted ads or unreliable workers who are hired and gone shortly after, deciding that the work is too hard.
They say that foreign workers (mostly from Mexico), on the other hand, are willing to do that kind of work and, for the most part, work hard. They claim that these workers come to America with one goal: to work hard, make money, and send that money home to support their families. That's why many of these landscape companies and nurseries hire labor recruiting agencies to help them fill their labor needs efficiently and, most importantly, legally.
The way these labor recruiting agencies are able to do this is through the H-2B nonimmigrant program, which permits employers to hire foreign workers to come to the U.S. and perform temporary nonagricultural work, which may be one-time, seasonal, peak load or intermittent. The problem is that only 66,000 workers can take advantage of the program each year, and the green industry has to compete with a host of other industries, including education, construction, health, lumber, manufacturing, food service and processing, and resort and hospitality, for those 66,000 workers. In 2004, the visa cap was reached for the first time in the history of the H-2B visa in the month of March, leaving many green industry companies out of luck.
“H-2B works fairly well but there are two limits: the artificial cap, and the whole functionality of the program, particularly relating to workers clearing the border,” says Craig Regelbrugge, senior director of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA). “A major capacity building effort has to happen. The government agencies have to have the capacity to approve workers in a timely fashion. The system is so bogged down that companies who needed workers yesterday can't get them because they haven't even done their consulate interviews yet.”
As one solution to the problem, an exemption was made last year for returning workers not counting against the cap of 66,000. But Regelbrugge says this is still unsatisfactory and would like to see more changes with H-2B.
“Ideally, we'd like to see the temporary cap fix to be extended to three years,” Regelbrugge says. “Is that adequate? No, because the cap has been hit this year already. We'd like to see an automatic mechanism built in where, if the cap is reached, it automatically adjusts upward.”
Although the immigration reform legislation currently being looked at in the U.S. Senate doesn't deal with H-2B, industry lobbyists say it will come up for review soon as an amendment to other legislation. The legislation currently under review deals with what to do with the estimated 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. Senate Republicans offered a compromise plan on April 5 that would allow illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States longer than five years to gain legal status without going home, provided they pay certain fees and submit to a background check. Illegals who have lived in the country for two to five years would have to leave briefly at a border point and re-enter, paying fines and undergoing background checks as well. Illegals with less than two years in the United States would be forced to return home and apply for re-entry with others seeking legal entry to the United States for the first time.
Regelbrugge says ANLA was pleased with the compromise and advocates an approach where workers would be given a chance to earn legal status through background checks, fines, etc. “We're happy the senate crafted a compromise that could bring along enough people from both parties to pass it. Politics is the art of what's possible.” Now, ANLA is hoping that both Republican and Democratic senators embrace this compromise.
PLANET's (Professional Landcare Network) position is similar to ANLA's: they will support legislation that provides an acceptable mechanism for legalizing improperly documented workers or legislation that gives employers access to a steady workforce of seasonal, full-time guest workers, provided that employers are granted the opportunity to gradually replace a worker who is found to be improperly documented. They believe such legislation must not eliminate the current H-2B program or place undue economic burdens on employers.
Bill Beardall knows a thing or two about foreign laborers. He is a native of Panama himself and has hired many immigrants as assistant director of facility operations for grounds management and fleet services at North Carolina State University. He likes the current legislation under review in the Senate and is hopeful it will pass.
“We all know that the immigration laws are broken and need to be repaired so that they work for everyone. To make it a felony to be in this country is ridiculous,” Beardall says. “I don't believe amnesty is the answer because it's too blanket of a proposal. I do like the idea of having [foreign workers] pay taxes they haven't paid.”
Those who oppose easing immigration laws have various reasons for doing so: they fear other cultures; they feel that immigrants take jobs away from Americans and their kids take education loans away from American students; they feel that employers can fill jobs from within America but simply aren't trying hard enough. Beardall couldn't disagree more.
“These [foreign workers] are very responsible and law abiding. They are here to make money,” he says. “If you ask me, the opponents of immigration reform harken back to the isolationist movement before World War II. Their minds are ‘anti-anybody’ who's different. They believe immigrants are taking away from Americans, but I believe the payoff is well-balanced. Politicians sometimes play to them because they feel it will help them get re-elected.”
As for now it's a waiting game. We, as Americans, will wait to see what the Senate decides while many in the green industry are left waiting for qualified employees. No matter what your opinion on how it should be done, few can argue that immigration policies, as are, need amending.
George Bendon is a freelance writer who currently resides in Ohio.
HISTORY OF IMMIGRATION
1790 - Naturalization Act stipulated that “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.”
1875 - Supreme Court declared that regulation of U.S. immigration is the responsibility of the Federal Government.
1882 - The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States.
1885 and 1887 - Alien Contract Labor laws prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States.
1891 - The Federal Government assumed the task of inspecting, admitting, rejecting and processing all immigrants seeking admission to the United States.
1892 - On January 2, a new Federal U.S. immigration station opened on Ellis Island in New York Harbor.
1903 - This Act reinstated the 1891 provisions concerning land borders and called for rules covering entry as well as inspection of aliens crossing the Mexican border.
1907 - The U.S. Immigration Act of 1907 reorganized the states bordering Mexico (Arizona, New Mexico and a large part of Texas) into Mexican Border District to stem the flow of immigrants into the United States.
1917-1924 - A series of laws were enacted to further limit the number of new immigrants. These laws established the quota system and imposed passport requirements. They expanded the categories of excludable aliens and banned all Asians except Japanese.
1924 - This Act reduced the number of U.S. immigration visas and allocated them on the basis of national origin.
1940 - The Alien Registration Act required all aliens (non-U.S. citizens) within the U.S. to register with the Government and receive an Alien Registration Receipt Card (the predecessor of the “green card”).
1950 - Passage of the Internal Security Act rendered the Alien Registration Receipt Card even more valuable. Immigrants with legal status had their cards replaced with what generally became known as the “green card” (Form I-151).
1952 - Act established the modern day U.S. immigration system. It created a quota system which imposes limits on a per-country basis. It also established the preference system that gave priority to family members and people with special skills.
1968 - Act eliminated U.S. immigration discrimination based on race, place of birth, sex and residence. It also officially abolished restrictions on Oriental U.S. immigration.
1976 - Act eliminated preferential treatment for residents of the Western Hemisphere.
1980 - Act established a general policy governing the admission of refugees.
1986 - Act focused on curtailing illegal U.S. immigration. It legalized hundred of thousands of illegal immigrants. It also introduced the employer sanctions program with fines employers for hiring illegal workers. It also passed tough laws to prevent bogus marriage fraud.
1990 - Act established an annual limit for certain categories of immigrants. It was aimed at helping U.S. businesses attract skilled foreign workers; thus, it expanded the business class categories to favor persons who can make educational, professional or financial contributions. It created the Immigrant Investor Program.
2001 - U.S. Patriot Act united and strengthened America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism.
2003 - Creation of the USCIS. As of March 1, 2003, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service becomes part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The department's new U.S. Citizenship and U.S. immigration Services (USCIS) function is to handle U.S. immigration services and benefits, including citizenship, applications for permanent residence, non-immigrant applications, asylum and refugee services. U.S. immigration enforcement functions are now under the Department's Border and Transportation Security Directorate, known as the Bureau of U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE).
|12,000,000||- Estimated number of illegal immigrants in the United States today|
|20,000,000||- Estimated shortage of workers by 2026|
|9.5%||- Percent of foreign-born population in United States (in 2000)|
|250,000-300,000||- Estimated number of illegal immigrants entering the United States each year|
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