WASHINGTON -- Former Arizona Rep. John Shadegg called for fellow Republicans in the House to move forward with immigration legislation, saying Tuesday that reform would benefit the economy and create jobs.
Shadegg, a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center‘s immigration task force, joined four other business leaders and policy experts at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce briefing on Capitol Hill, where speakers urged Congress to act on stalled immigration legislation. Reform would help give the private sector a much-needed increase in the labor pool, among other benefits, they said.
"We need to allow those who are here illegally to come out of the shadows, to stop living underground and to get right with the law," Shadegg said.
The current immigration system has failed to protect borders, he said, creating de facto amnesty for 11 million undocumented immigrants. The system also lacks a mechanism that would separate terrorists and criminals from those entering the country for work.
"They are crossing every single day, and doing nothing doesn't solve that problem," Shadegg said.
But at least one reform critic said the solution to the problem is already in hand.
"We should enforce the laws we have in a sensible way," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. That would include cracking down on companies that employ immigrants who are here illegally.
Mehlman disagreed with the panel's conclusions, saying the economic activity produced by undocumented immigrants could be carried out by people who are in this country legally.
But farm and business leaders at Tuesday's briefing all agreed that an influx of people to the labor pool would improve the economy, rather than displace American workers.
The idea of immigration reform as a pathway to cheap labor is a myth, said Mike Fernandez, an executive at food-processing company Cargill. Rather, reform would help fill the shoes of soon-to-be-retired baby boomers.
"We still are looking at a world in which we're going to need more talent, not less talent," Fernandez said.
Doug Holtz-Eakin argued that closed borders would only cause the American economy to shrink as Japan's economy has. Holtz-Eakin, president of "center-right" think tank American Action Forum, said people should think of immigration reform not just in terms of 2014, but as an investment for the next 10 to 20 years.
With so many Americans supporting immigration reform, Holtz-Eakin said Republicans should seize the issue rather than wait for President Barack Obama to sign an executive order.
"It's better to talk about immigration on your own terms in an election year than to let someone else dictate the terms," he said.
Shadegg said that he opposes the bipartisan, 1,200-page comprehensive reform bill that was passed last year by the Democrat-controlled Senate, before stalling in the House. He wants to see the Republican-controlled House pass one of the bills that have passed its committees, which contain several steps for residency and penalties.
Undocumented immigrants are exploited, he said, by businesses that try to "cheat their competitors" by hiring illegal workers at extremely low wages while the competitors try to employ legal residents.
"In the Western United States, certainly in small states like Arizona, it is small businesses that hire illegals in large quantities," because of the difficulty finding legal workers, Shadegg said. "It is small businesses that can take that risk."
He addressed the argument of some Republicans that Obama would pick and choose parts of a new immigration law to enforce, calling it an excuse. About four out of five Americans want some sort of reform, he said, and Congress has a responsibility to answer that demand.
"Legislators are elected to lead," Shadegg said.
But while Congress as a whole is stalled, there are members who are trying to work toward permanent reform, he said. He cited Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa, as one of several legislators working toward a process that would let people enter the country legally through border checkpoints.