Hispanic Chamber to push for guest worker program
By David Schwartz
They are the lessons pulled from the history books and reinforced in the mind of a 12-year-old boy working in the picking fields of Holtville, a small agricultural enclave in Imperial Valley, Calif. It was there that young, macho Harry Garewal learned first-hand about the importance of immigrant labor, schooled on the tricks of the trade from the guest workers at the time as he harvested crops of carrots, onions, watermelons and tomatoes.
Beyond wearing long sleeves in the blaring sun and using overripe tomatoes to wash away the insecticides, the youth cultivated a broad realization that sticks with him today. “This country has been reliant on imported immigrant labor since its inception,” says Garewal, president and chief executive of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “That’s the way it has been and always will be. That’s what this issue is all about. Our labor market is based on supply and demand. There is a demand for these workers. And we need to have a program in place that gets the job done.” That’s why the 567-member chamber now is pushing for a federal guest worker program with renewed vigor, backed by small and medium-sized businesses who overwhelmingly have said they want the group to get involved in public policy issues.
Starting first with “baby steps,” Garewal says the chamber plans to add a stronger voice than ever before to the immigration debate as the nation struggles with a solution to what most agree is a broken system. Congress is expected to hold public hearings around the country this summer to listen to what the American public has to say about the divisive issue. This as President George W. Bush has made immigration reform a top priority and a guest worker program a key element in his plan.
Garewal says the timing could not be better for the chamber to play a more active role on an issue that hits hard locally, potentially harming Arizona’s robust economy. “Before, we served as an information highway and voiced our opinion to people,” says Garewal, who has led the chamber for three years. “Now, we’re going to do a little more.”
He says future plans tentatively call for the chamber to join or start a political action committee and hire a part-time lobbyist to rally support. Chamber members also would be trained to help make the case for reforms.
Chamber officials are working from a document that was passed by its public policy committee about three years ago, stitched together after a meeting with congressional leaders and staff members from Arizona. Outlined in the one-page proposal are the key reasons for a federal guest worker program and six tenants that such an effort should contain.
Jessica Pacheco, the committee’s chairwoman, says the policy seeks to move beyond the politics and heated rhetoric swirling about the issue and provide businesses with badly needed workers at a time when the labor market is wound tightly.
“What we wanted to do was bring some facts back into the conversation,” says Pacheco, an Arizona Public Service Co. executive. “The fact is that we need temporary workers to fill jobs in this country. We frankly don’t have enough bodies to do certain jobs.”
She says a guest worker program is not about amnesty or a path to citizenship—two thorny issues that often cloud the debate and prevent clear-headed measures from progressing. Pacheco also says that changes are needed to improve the system now, allowing employers to determine whether prospective employees are legal. “Any thoughtful business person in this country believes there is a need for a guest worker program,” Pacheco says. “It’s just good for business.”
Ray Gonzales, president of RBG Construction Co. in Glendale, says a guest worker program is long overdue and that the workers are vital to the industry and others statewide. “It would really hurt if we tried to get rid of these people instead of making it right for them,” adds Gonzales, whose decade-old company employs about 80 workers. “It’s a shame that we fail to recognize that immigrants bring success to whatever it is and wherever we are using them.”
In the end, Garewal believes long-awaited immigration reform—one with a guest worker program at its heart—will be passed into law in the near future. “I think we will come to an agreement in this country for systematic improvement,” he says. “It may take a couple of years to iron out the details, but it is going to happen. It has to happen.”