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October 22, 2007
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Rapid Response

Op-ed on immigration published in the Miami Herald on April 16, 2006

Good for America, businesses, workers

As a restaurateur, I see the economic damage done by the immigration system every day. Fast-growing industries like mine and others such as construction, healthcare and hospitality face worker shortages. These are set to get worse. Over the next decade, the National Restaurant Association projects that the number of jobs in the food-service business will grow 1 ½ times as fast as the U.S. labor force. At the same time, the number of 16- to 24 year-olds in the labor force — half our industry's workforce — will not grow at all.

Unfortunately, our immigration system does not reflect America's need for workers. Our economy provided 134 million jobs last year. Yet the federal government makes only 10,000 green cards available for service-industry workers each year. No wonder there are almost 12 million undocumented individuals in America today, and half a million more arriving each year, according to figures just released by the Pew Hispanic Center.

This dysfunctional system forces America's employers to navigate tricky waters each time they hire: complex immigration regulations; a glut of seemingly valid, but counterfeit, worker identification documents; and the threat of discrimination lawsuits if they ask the 'wrong' questions about employees' documents.

Law impossible to enforce
The immigration system also makes life harsh for undocumented workers. Risking their lives to come here, they also risk exploitation and deportation when they arrive.

Even more seriously, the current immigration system puts America's national security at risk. The Department of Homeland Security cannot screen the millions of undocumented workers already here or the hundreds of thousands more arriving each year.

Because current immigration policies are impossible to enforce, they breed contempt for the law. Forcing seven million hard-working, taxpaying undocumented employees and their families to live in the shadows as second-class, noncitizens creates a barrier to their learning English and assimilating into society as past immigrants have done.

Immigration foes claim that the answer is simple: more enforcement. This approach, typified by a bill that passed the House last year, proposes severe penalties for employers and undocumented employees. The idea behind the bill: Make life so tough on the undocumented that they will eventually leave.

The House bill certainly would make things tough. This bill classifies undocumented immigrants as 'aggravated felons' — a tough charge for the nursing-home employee who cares for the elderly or the hotel worker who cleans our room. The bill also calls for fining even mom-and-pop restaurants up to $25,000 for immigration-related paperwork errors. Small restaurants whose 'office' may be a dining table — and that are least able to get complex immigration regulations exactly right — would be hit the hardest.

Whatever difficulties these enforcement measures would entail, the economic consequences of removing the one in 20 employees who are undocumented from America's workforce would be devastating. The restaurant industry — the nation's largest private-sector employer — sustains 12.5 million jobs in restaurants directly and millions more in other industries.

Clearly we can't fix our broken immigration laws simply by enforcing them more stringently. Instead, we need to make them reflect the laws of supply and demand and the need to secure our borders. Only by reforming immigration policy in this way will we improve enforcement and strengthen America's economy, security and values.

Senate Republicans and Democrats can come together on this.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have introduced legislation supported by religious groups, labor unions and employers.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, John Kyl of Arizona, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Pete Domenici of New Mexico recognize that 'more enforcement' alone won't solve the problem.

Each has something to add to the solution.

Now the task falls to Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, who also has new ideas to offer, and members of his committee to produce immigration legislation that finally addresses America's economic and national security needs.

Craig Miller is chairman of the National Restaurant Association and CEO of Ruth's Chris Steak House.