Businesses give Obama's immigration plan a chilly reception

Business leaders who have long clamored for immigration reform say they are unsatisfied with President Obama’s move this week to give legal status and work permits to millions of immigrants in the United States illegally.

Top business groups in Washington say Obama may have “undermined” any faint hope of meaningful measures to overhaul the nation’s immigration system by going around Congress to delay deportations.

“We wish the president had tried a little harder to work with the incoming Congress to find a legislative solution to the immigration problem,” says Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Obama’s executive action came amid fierce pressure from immigration activists. The directive provides temporary relief for about 4.5 million illegal immigrants, who will be allowed to continue living in the U.S.

The government will also expand the number of high-tech visas that are available, and loosen restrictions so that more would-be entrepreneurs can travel to the United States.

“I’ll make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed,” Obama declared, in a nod to the private sector.

But business groups were less than enthused by the plan, arguing that it does not do enough to improve the position of U.S. businesses on the global stage.

"Successfully competing for the world’s best talent and hardest workers will be indispensable to our efforts to grow the economy and expand jobs and incomes for all Americans,” said Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The National Association of Manufacturers calls it a “competitiveness issue.”
“Without reform, we will fall behind in an increasingly competitive global economy as other nations offer a more inviting environment for innovation,” said CEO Jay Timmons.

Business groups have long campaigned for a broader expansion to the visa program.

The only way to accomplish that, Mozloom said, is through legislation, something that seems even less likely now that the president has “blown up his relationship with the incoming Congress.”

Obama’s immigration order has created more “bad blood” between the White House and Congress, Mozloom added, calling the move “politically unwise.”

“There was a possibility of broader immigration reform with the incoming Congress, but he chose to do something else, which is unfortunate,” Mozloom said.

While Obama’s immigration order halts the deportations of the parents of U.S. citizens, it does little to help the business community, because most of these people are low-skill workers, says Matt Sonnesyn, immigration director at the Business Roundtable.

“To make economic gain from immigration reform, we have to welcome more people who are coming here to work and contribute to the American economy,” Sonnesyn said.

Still, business groups are also looking for more immigrants who will take low-skill jobs.

Sonnesyn pointed to a Pew study that shows the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally make up only 3.5 percent of the population, but 5 percent of the workforce.

“So those are people who are working and we want them to be able to continue contributing to the workforce,” he said.

Helping low-skill workers obtain visas is very difficult, Sonnesyn explained.

“On the agricultural side, the visa program is so cumbersome that in some cases your crops might be rotting before you can get someone to come through and pick them.”

Business groups are also calling for Congress to pass legislation approving E-Verify, which is an electronic system employers use to verify the legal status of job applicants.

They say this will make it easier for them to avoid hiring immigrants illegally and all the government fines that come with it.