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Road map to citizenship has support among small-business owners

April 02, 2013|By Alana Semuels
  • Guest workers at the Barr Evergreens Christmas tree farm in Crumpler, N.C., who are part of the H2A program are in the United States legally to do seasonal farm work. Their transport to and from Mexico is paid by the U.S. employer, along with housing and higher-than-average wages.
Guest workers at the Barr Evergreens Christmas tree farm in Crumpler, N.C.,… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Business owners often have a tricky relationship with the idea of giving immigrant workers a path to citizenship. On the one hand, employers (usually) want to keep their workers happy and working hard, which often means seeing their families more than once a year. On the other hand, workers who have citizenship have less incentive to stay with one employer, and may leave tough, low-paying jobs for other work, leaving employers in the lurch.

“If the guest workers did become citizens, some of them would probably stay, they enjoy the farm work, and like working outside,” said Rusty Barr, a farmer featured in a Sunday story about immigration reform. “But I think the majority would just exit the agricultural sector and look for other employment.”

Various proposals being discussed in Congress would lead to some sort of amnesty for immigrants currently in the United States, and a path to citizenship for guest workers who have come to work in the U.S. for a certain period of time. But there are some signs that more and more business owners and conservatives are coming around to the idea of a path to citizenship for immigrants.

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Small-business owners, who often stay on the sidelines of immigration reform, favor a road map to citizenship by more than a 2-to-1 margin, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Main Street Alliance and the American Sustainable Business Council.

About 67% of small-business owners support a road map to citizenship for immigrants currently living and working in the U.S., while 27% oppose it, according to the poll. The majority also say they prefer a road map to citizenship for future immigrants over a guest worker program with no road map to citizenship. Business owners said immigrants help strengthen their customer base and that workers are more productive when their families are nearby, the survey said.

“When politicians push for worker programs with no road map to citizenship, they’re pushing a narrow big business agenda at the expense of a stronger economy for small businesses and the economy,” said David Borris, who owns a catering company in Illinois and is on the steering committee of the Main Street Alliance, a network of small-business coalitions.

National opinion seems to be moving in the direction of a road map to citizenship. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that two-thirds of Californians think that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country, and eventually gain citizenship rights. And Sen. Rand Paul last month said he would endorse a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

But the shifting opinion of business owners might be among the most significant. The National Federation of Independent Businesses and other coalitions have often found their members oppose any sweeping immigration reform, and that they prefer that those who don’t follow the rules be punished, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank.

 “Every time they survey, they find their members don’t want legal status for illegal immigrants,
 he said. “They’re often law-and-order types, tied to their communities.”

The Main Street Alliance Poll found that more than half of Republicans surveyed and 70% of Democrats surveyed said they preferred a path to citizenship over a temporary worker program with no road map to citizenship.

But even small businesses that might prefer temporary workers to permanent citizens say they’ll deal with the consequences if a road map to citizenship becomes law. They’ll do that by focusing on making sure there will be a future flow of immigrants to handle the jobs that others don’t want.

“If Congress passes it, we’ll deal with it,” said Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Assn., which helps farmers with the tricky process of getting guest workers legally. “They’ll move on, and we’ll wish them the very best.”

ALSO:

Most Californians favor path to citizenship for illegal immigrants

Rand Paul to support path to citizenship for illegal immigrants

U.S. farmworkers, guestworkers, pay a price to stay legal

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