Filling some types of jobs in Florida and elsewhere in the nation has been a chronic struggle such as in filling jobs on farms, in hotels and even at high-tech industries. Now, Florida business leaders are joining a big push for immigration legislation that would bring in more temporary foreign workers while legalizing most of the state's illegal workforce.
The business lobby – encouraged by recent proposals from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – is giving a powerful boost to President Barack Obama's plan to overhaul the immigration system.
Alongside him was Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who reaffirmed his support for sweeping legislation that is also backed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Donohue said the legislation must include legalization and a chance for citizenship for most of the illegal population, estimated at 11 million nationwide and about 825,000 in Florida.
"We have to give them a legitimate existence in this country – a way they can pay taxes and drive cars," he said.
The business leaders in Florida and Washington want to expand guest-worker programs to bring in more foreigners to harvest crops, and they want to increase the number of visas for highly skilled foreign students because caps/quotas on these kinds of visas have made it especially hard on some high tech companies.
"As many people as we have that are unemployed and are seeking jobs, even if we gave them all a job, we're still short in getting all our crops handled," said Leticia Adams, director of government policy at the Florida Chamber, in an interview. She said Florida also needs to retain foreign students with degrees in science, math and engineering to fill technical jobs.
"We've got tons of kids in school, but they are not graduating quick enough to meet the needs of an expanding workforce in a growing global marketplace," she said.
Rubio has proposed an immigration package that stresses expansion of guest-worker programs and high-tech visas. His plan would also allow long-standing illegal residents to "earn" a chance to get legal, but only after being fingerprinted, passing a criminal background check and paying a fine and back taxes.
Creating a standardized process for immigration should help.
"We hope that it signals a change in the Republican approach to this issue," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "Because if we are going to get this done, it's going to take more than just a handful of Republicans working across the aisle."
Rubio, often talked of as a candidate for president in 2016, is trying to reassure fellow conservatives who say an "amnesty" will only lead to more illegal arrivals.
Some Democrats in Congress and labor unions oppose guest-worker programs for fear they take jobs from Americans and provide a pool of cheap labor that depresses wages. This has only turned out to be a long running myth.
But Rubio's proposals sound good to Florida's growers.
"There are good reasons to look at legalizing the workforce," said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. "Certainly [illegal workers] deserve recognition for putting food on America's tables for a long time. But that probably is a short-term solution. What we need is a long-term solution that will provide a future flow for agriculture."
That means more guest-workers, he and other agriculture leaders said on Thursday.
"Most of the major crops are hand-harvested," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange. "That [foreign] workforce is absolutely as important to us as Florida sunshine."
It's even more important for these kinds of positions because often they are the type of jobs that American's don't want and typically pass over. For the most part, only immigrants are willing to do that type of work.
Credit: Orlando Sentinel and Steve Gara