The cause of immigration reform has led Bill Blazar a bit outside his organization’s usual comfort zone. The second-in-command at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has been with the organization for two decades, but his position advocating in favor of comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, D.C. represents the first time he’s undertaken a major role on a federal issue. And in the process, he’s working with unions like the AFL-CIO and SEIU – organizations the chamber has usually clashed with on state policy issues – to reach a deal.
The Minnesota Chamber has made immigration reform a priority since 2007, not long after the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act fizzled in Congress. “[We realized that] fixing the immigration system was not going to be a slam dunk, that it really needed the attention of organizations like the chamber that represent businesses to policy makers,” Blazar said. “We had not been engaged. We knew that it was increasingly important, but we figured that it wasn’t that controversial and that Congress would just pass it. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong.”
In June, the U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform package that includes a pathway to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented workers, but work in the GOP-controlled House has stalled. Leadership initially said they would take a piecemeal approach when they returned to Washington in the fall, starting with legislation to strengthen security at the borders. But now House Speaker John Boehner is trying to tamp down expectations that anything substantial could pass before the end of the year.
Blazar and the chamber have ramped up their advocacy for reform, and they’re holding out hope that Congress will come their way. The chamber recently published a 60-page report touting the economic benefits of immigration reform, and Blazar has continued to press the issue with some of the key swing voters in the House, including suburban Minnesota Republican Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen.
Capitol Report:Why is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce taking such an active role on the issue of federal immigration reform?
Bill Blazar: It all goes back to the economy. It turns out that immigrants are significant and substantial contributors to the development and growth of Minnesota’s economy in a bunch of ways, but most notably as workers at all skill levels. Nobody should think that the only contribution of an immigrant worker is putting a roof on your house – it’s light-years beyond that. Secondly, they contribute as entrepreneurs and innovators, starting companies, and helping existing companies develop new goods and products. And third, as consumers: They shop, and that part of our culture they assimilate to very quickly. And fourth, they are a bridge to the world economy. They bring with them contacts to potential suppliers and customers elsewhere in the world, but they also add to the diversity and richness of our Minnesota environment. And by doing that, they make people around the world more much more likely and comfortable doing business here in Minnesota.
CR: What do business leaders in Minnesota say about why this issue is important to them?
Blazar: They’ve recognized the importance of immigrants, and the fact that the current immigration system is so dysfunctional. Once you acknowledge the importance of immigrants, then you become more sensitive to it and more concerned about the system that administers whether or not they can come to this country and how long they can stay and what they can do.
CR: How long has this been a key issue for the chamber?
Blazar: We’ve been working on reform since 2007, and I think what got us more engaged was, first, what we were hearing from Minnesota businesses, and then secondly, the effort in 2006 by President George W. Bush to reform the system.
The president had a very good plan, and it had bipartisan support in Congress, but it was soundly defeated by what we think was, and is, a relatively small portion of the American people. What we concluded is that fixing the immigration system was not going to be a slam dunk, that it really needed the attention of organizations like the chamber that represent businesses to policy makers. We had not been engaged. We knew that it was increasingly important, but we figured that it wasn’t that controversial and that Congress would just pass it. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong.
So starting in 2007, we organized a business immigration coalition, we did the report that was published last week, and we did a similar report published in 2009. We’ve done meetings around the state to try and build grassroots support for immigration reform, and we are talking to members of Congress.
CR: What about suburban Republicans like Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen? Have you been making progress on swaying them to support immigration reform?
Blazar: I think we are making progress. I think they both understand and appreciate the need for reform from a business perspective. We talk to them about three things, and one is making the system more workable from an administrative point of view – so a better way to verify who is legal to work, that is the e-verify system. Employers are perfectly willing and able to help enforce the current system, but they need a system that’s reliable, accurate and fast. E-verify is not quite there, but it’s getting better.
The second thing that we talk to members of Congress about is that we need a system of visas for temporary and visiting workers that better fits the economy. The last time we did immigration reform was in 1986, and at that time we set up quotas for different occupations, and we have basically lived with those quotas since 1986, in spite of the fact that the economy has grown substantially and gone up and down. We need a more dynamic system. That’s every bit as important to the business community as having a system that’s efficient and accurate with respect to administration.
The third thing we talk about is resolving the status of the 11 million people that are here today without proper documentation. Those folks, we think they need to have a path to being documented, and that path could be a path to having a clear and legitimate work permit, or it could be a path that has a work permit and leads to citizenship.
Not every immigrant is going to want a path to citizenship, but I think all that are here without authorization would all like to have their status clarified, so they can get out of the shadows, so to speak. That kind of program is going to only work for people who, yes they came here illegally, but since getting here have worked, and they have paid taxes, they learned English. They’ve done all the things you’d expect someone new to the country to do, but they just came here under the wrong circumstances, or more importantly, overstayed their visa, so we need a way to clarify their status.
CR: What do you predict will happen on this? House Speaker John Boehner seems to have thrown some cold water on the issue.
Blazar: The House Judiciary Committee has acted on five immigration reform-related bills; they have not acted on a guest worker program, one that’s linked to economic conditions. They haven’t acted on that, nor have they acted on a bill that resolves the status of people who are here without authorization. We remain hopeful, and our advice to them is to get this done before the first of the year. The House Judiciary Committee needs to act on two more bills, and all seven of them need to clear the floor so they can go to a conference committee with the Senate, and hopefully produce a final bill.
CR: Who are you working on this issue with, both in the state and federally?
Blazar: In the state, we are working with [Minnesota] Agri-Growth Council, the Nursery and Landscape Association, the milk producers, the hotel [and] motel associations, also some of the immigrant advocacy organizations, like the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota. Some representatives from the faith community, like Transform Minnesota, they are very active, as is the AFL-CIO and the SEIU. I think we probably have the broadest coalition of any issue I’ve worked on in the last 30 or 40 years. While we don’t agree on all the details of the bills, we certainly agree on the basics.
CR: Is it common for a state chamber to get so involved on a federal issue?
Blazar: It’s certainly uncommon for us. We focus almost all of our resource on state policy makers – the Legislature and the state executive agencies. We did some work on health care reform at the federal level, and we continue to watch that, but really immigration reform is the only other federal issue we’ve worked on in the last two decades.