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Affected Industries Clamor for Consideration

Business groups lobby lawmakers not to crack down on hiring illegal immigrants without providing a means for some sort of legal status.

April 06, 2006|Jonathan Peterson and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the immigration debate moved into the Senate last month, Sonoma County landscaper David Penry traveled to Washington with nine other California business owners to lobby lawmakers. On Sunday, he appeared in a national television ad sponsored by a broad set of businesses, including those in the healthcare, agriculture, hospitality, retail, roofing, plumbing, amusement park and nursery fields.

Their message: In the process of reining in illegal immigration, lawmakers also risk reining in economic growth and damaging the health of a large number of industries.

With the Senate furiously negotiating over its version of an immigration bill, businesses have undertaken a massive lobbying campaign to make sure lawmakers do not toughen the laws against hiring undocumented workers without providing a way to shift those workers into at least a temporary legal status.

While business groups are trying to influence the Senate deliberations, they are even more unhappy with the measure passed last year by the House, which focuses on enhancing border security but includes no temporary-worker plan.

"This was very, very scary, doomsday legislation for business," said Penry, who co-owns a landscaping company that counts two-thirds of its workers as foreign-born. "When the House bill passed, I realized it needs to be all hands on board. I was shocked."

Business groups have put members of Congress on notice that their vote on immigration overhaul legislation will be featured in report cards distributed to their members at election time. And the groups have warned that those votes also will be a key factor in deciding whether the lawmakers receive their financial support in future campaigns.

At the American Nursery and Landscape Assn., the political action committee has directed "that we're not authorized to make PAC contributions to lawmakers who haven't done something to evidence their support for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform," said Craig J. Regelbrugge, senior director of government relations for the trade group.

"It's difficult in good conscience to take those [campaign] dollars to support members of Congress who are advocating for solutions that will decimate our members' businesses," he said.

Businesses have also conducted letter-writing campaigns to Congress. The chain that owns Chili's has alone sparked more than 2,500 letters.

The lobbying effort has drawn support not just from trade associations with K Street addresses, but also from industries that are less accustomed to rubbing shoulders on Capitol Hill.

The business soldiers include such people as Manuel F. Cunha Jr., who on Wednesday was delivering 300 letters to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) from high school students in California's Central Valley, where Cunha has a 40-acre citrus ranch.

"When you read these letters, it's pretty compelling," said Cunha, the son of a Portuguese immigrant. "They see that their mothers and fathers have worked hard in the farming industry."

Penry, the Sonoma County businessman, appeared in a nationally televised ad Sunday paid for by an alliance of industries known as the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. In it, he said of immigrants, "We need to fix our laws so they can work in this country legally and get the dignity and respect they've earned."

Though some criticize business for favoring cheap labor, the employers respond that many jobs would go unfilled without immigrant workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that between 2004 and 2014, growth in the number of the youngest U.S. workers -- those 16 to 24 -- will be flat, and those 25 to 54 will increase just 0.3%.

Business groups are worried about proposals that would force some of the nation's illegal immigrants to leave the country.

"If you were to round up 11 million undocumented workers, you might be shutting down the construction industry," said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive of Associated General Contractors of America.

The arguments appear to have made some preliminary inroads in the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee last month passed a bill that would give undocumented workers a path to permanent residency and ultimately citizenship. Its prospects remain uncertain, however.

"You've got some of the largest business groups in the country participating in this lobbying effort," said Ken Preede, director of government relations for the American Health Care Assn. "It's as big as anything I've been involved with in the last 10 years. It's basically what everyone's talking about."

Employers also worry that Congress could subject them to stiff penalties for failing to detect phony identification papers that may be of extremely high quality.

"I do not knowingly employ undocumented workers," Penry said. "That's absolutely not my style." But he said fake papers were so sophisticated that at times he couldn't recognize them.

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