U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said Congress should be able to agree on immigration laws that provide American businesses with high-tech and seasonal laborers they need – and address workers who are in the country illegally without giving them a path to citizenship.
Leading a roundtable of business leaders and state politicians on Monday, Tillis implored them to convince members of Congress to act.
“What you all need to do as industries is be very focused in terms of the members who may be able to be persuaded because of the devastating impact it has on their states,” Tillis said.
The discussion at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce included representatives from the construction, hospitality, agriculture and technology industries. Certain businesses worry about the availability of worker visas, saying they cannot find Americans who will take seasonal jobs or fill positions requiring high-tech skills.
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The availability of some worker visas has become more uncertain. President Donald Trump has criticized abuses of the visa program for workers with hard-to-find skills such as those in the tech industry. The Trump administration has toughened policies toward illegal immigration with an executive order and Department of Homeland Security enforcement memos, widening the categories of immigrants targeted for deportation.
Some seafood processing plants on the East Coast are closed because a cap on the visa program for seasonal, non-agricultural laborers limited the supply of available workers, said Jennifer Dionne of the American Seafood Jobs Alliance.
“For the seafood industry, we need a long-term solution,” she said. “Without this program, the seafood industry wouldn’t exist.”
The hospitality industry relies on immigrant labor and is set to create more jobs than there will be American-born workers to fill them, said Kim Siomkos, director of government affairs for the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Personalized service “is not something that can be automated and it’s not something that can be outsourced,” she said. “Over the next 10 years, we’re at a major crossing point with immigration reform because we’re one of the biggest hirers of immigrant workers.”
Immigration is a divisive issue that has resisted a federal solution for years. Tillis said a bipartisan approach can succeed.
He emphasized the need to secure the border with Mexico, deport criminals and provide “temporary protected status” – short of citizenship – for immigrants who came to the United States as children with their parents.
For others, he said, policy should depend on how they came to the United States, how long they have been here and what they’ve done since. He swatted down any notion that he supports amnesty.
Incremental progress can be made, Tillis said.
“It’s one of the most pressing and solvable issues we have to deal with in Congress,” he said. “Nothing new will be discussed. It’s more how you package the legislation and implement it.”
New American Economy, a coalition advocating for immigration reform and founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and media mogul Rupert Murdoch, organized the meeting.