By CHRIS TOMLINSON
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ Texas retailers, restaurants, hotels and farmers are suffering from a shortage of low-skilled workers and need changes to federal immigration laws that will make sure the industries have the employees they need to expand, members of a new business coalition said Monday.
Some of the state’s top trade associations joined the Partnership for a New American Economy, a non-partisan group that lobbies Congress to change U.S. immigration laws to create a legal status for those working in the country illegally and a guest worker program to meet future needs.
“It is an emotional issue, it is a politically-charged issue, but we believe that if Congress would act in a reasonable and rational way, it would take away a lot that emotion,” said Richie Jackson, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association. “It is really time that we step back from the rhetoric and look at the substance that is being proposed.”
Jackson said immigrant labor is needed for low-skilled, entry-level jobs in restaurants, hotels, construction and on farms. High demand for labor is creating insecurity by persuading workers to cross the border illegally and to obtain fake documents that steal other people’s identities, he said.
“The crux of the issue is what to do with the workforce which is already here. We would want to see, at the very least, a legal status so that that workforce can come out of the shadows,” he said. Members of the coalition also include the Texas Association of Retailers, Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, Texas Vegetable Association, the South Texas Property Rights Association and the Texas Citrus Mutual.
Polling shows immigration is one of the most important issues to Republican voters in Texas, and some GOP candidates have taken a hard line on illegal immigration. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, opposes programs that would provide a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
The coalition supports increasing border security but thinks that is best done by creating a guest worker program that meets both the current demand and the future needs of the American economy. Ray Prewitt, representing vegetable and citrus growers, said the current agricultural worker program has only 60,000 people enrolled when farmers need 1.5 million workers.
“If we have … crackdowns, we’re not going to have the workers we have right now,” he said. “One of the messages to Congress is: If you are going to do those enforcement things, you have to provide for the future flow of workers.”
Members acknowledged at a press conference Monday in the Texas Capitol that it will be difficult to get Congress to make changes to immigration laws before elections in November, but the coalition wants to make the issue a priority.
“Politics shouldn’t trump the realities of what is happening on the ground,” said Robert Howard, representing the South Texas Property Rights Association. “We think there is enough common ground between each party to come up with a solution.”