Jason Ball, president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, moderates a question and answer session with Nebraska’s congressional delegates during legislative summit Tuesday in Ashland, Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
ASHLAND, Nebraska — Workers are hard to come by, and Congress should help.
State business leaders shared that message and more with Nebraska’s all-GOP congressional delegation Tuesday during the annual summit held by the Nebraska, Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.
Local chamber members and Christine Scullion, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive director of government affairs, pressed the delegation to embrace an all-hands approach to supplying new workers, including supporting politically challenging fixes to the immigration system.
“What we’re trying to do is lay out that failure is actually the only not acceptable option,” said Scullion, the day’s keynote speaker. She leads an effort by the U.S. Chamber to encourage Congress to pass legal immigration reform and border enforcement this year.
Smaller, incremental changes
Scullion said the national chamber, which advocates for state and local chambers, is no longer pushing a catch-all immigration reform bill, which the chamber believes won’t pass. They now seek incremental bills addressing flaws of the immigration system, in digestible bites that the public can understand.
She offered the breakfast crowd of more than 300 a handful of specific ways Congress can make a difference. Among them: expanding the numbers of specialty visas set aside each year for talent from other countries in fields where there aren’t enough American workers.
Congress can also work on cutting the lag time between when someone applies for asylum and when a case is heard by adding more immigration judges and encouraging more lawyers to take on immigration-related cases.
She said she would like to see speedier access to ID verification technologies for employers and potential employees and to see Congress clean up and clarify the alphabet soup of temporary and longer-term visas so sectors like agriculture and technology can get the help they need.
“The workforce challenges in the U.S. are massive, and we need to find a way to bridge that gap,” Scullion said. “We don’t want people taking American jobs, but we want to make sure that the economy is continuing to grow.”
All-GOP delegation open to approach
She found a receptive audience for a separate, incremental approach to immigration from U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts and U.S. Reps. Mike Flood and Adrian Smith. Rep. Don Bacon was traveling and recorded a video message for the summit.
Fischer said she prefers breaking legislation on complicated topics like immigration into smaller pieces because it’s easier to find political allies and build support for changes that members can more easily explain to voters. It also lets members vote against changes they will not support, she said.
Ricketts said he is working with other senators to consider some changes, including letting governors request higher numbers of specialty visas in targeted industries. He said he is also open to providing green cards to the children of immigrants who are in the country legally.
Some want border security first
Fischer, Ricketts, Flood and Smith stressed the need to get better control over illegal border crossings, which the Department of Homeland Security said jumped 30% in July after dropping in June. The delegation credited Scullion for acknowledging the political reality that little substantive change would occur in federal immigration law without new investments in border security.
Smith, said Nebraskans in his largely rural district might be more willing to discuss opportunities for immigrants seeking a better life if they felt the country was taking border security more seriously. The U.S. is spending about $17.5 billion on customs and border security this year.
Fischer said there is bipartisan “agreement to secure the border.” Ricketts agreed.
“We tried giving amnesty first,” Ricketts said of the 1980s immigration reform efforts under former President Ronald Reagan. “It didn’t work. So that’s why we know we have to secure the border first, and I’m pleased to hear the U.S. Chamber actually taking that seriously.”
Flood said advocates for immigration reform need to understand and empathize with border ranchers in Texas and Arizona who get knocks on their doors in the middle of the night from migrants who need water after spending days in the hot sun or who find dead people on their properties.
He asked how Nebraskans would feel if that was happening on farmsteads near Fairbury, Neb., for example.
“We would be pulling every fire alarm in a five-state area if anything remotely similar was happening in Nebraska,” Flood said.
Nebraskans critical of congressional inaction on immigration fixes argue that the only way to significantly cut the number of illegal border crossings is to increase the number of people allowed in legally and to improve the speed and clarity of the processes to enter the country.
Elsa RamonArranda of LULAC of Nebraska, which advocates for Latino residents, chafed at the description of border crossings as somehow new. She grew up in Laredo, Texas, and said she was used to seeing Border Patrol agents on the streets, “just like police.”
She said it was offensive to embrace immigration reform now that the U.S. needs workers and not because of human suffering along the border. She encouraged the chamber and its allies to reach out to Nebraska Latinos through groups like hers and include their voices in these discussions.
Immigrants and refugees contribute 8% of the state’s economic output, an OpenSky Policy Institute study indicated.
“Immigration has never been able to be fixed, no matter what percentage of Congress is Republican or Democrat,” RamonArranda said. “It’s a very narrow view … and an attempt to scare people.”
Newbies Ricketts and Flood expressed some optimism that progress was possible this year on immigration. Smith said he was encouraged by the chamber recognizing the value of smaller, more measured steps. Fischer, as she sometimes does, offered a dose of skepticism.
Asked whether she saw a path to passage of immigration bills soon, she said simply: “No.”
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