Originally created 11/12/06

Executives talk about immigrant visa reform



ATLANTA - There was no sense of irony as Hispanic waiters set out china breakfast plates on linen tablecloths and poured from silver coffee pots as the employers and lobbyists present plotted ways to relax the country's immigration policy.

The 200 executives from the poultry, construction and landscaping industries, who met at the posh Commerce Club in an Atlanta high-rise, were keenly aware of how critical immigrants are to commerce.

Tommy Bagwell, the chairman and chief executive officer of American Proteins Inc., explained his company's difficulty in finding workers.

To drive the trucks for his rendering plants, he often has to rely on overtime and contract truckers. In his plants, he pays twice the minimum wage and generous health coverage, he said, and he still has to scrounge for takers.

Immigrants aren't taking jobs from Americans, he says, because Americans don't want certain jobs. The immigrants do.

"I believe that all the nations with a higher standard of living will be a magnet for immigrants," he said.

Many at the meeting predicted that Democrats would be more willing to embrace President Bush's immigration-reform plan than the Republicans they're displacing.

Mr. Bush wants to open wider the doors for legal immigrants, allow them to change jobs once they're here without losing their visas and provide a pathway for the 12 million illegal immigrants already here to eventually become citizens.

Daryl Buffenstein, a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a founder of American Business for Legal Immigration alliance, warns that American jobs are indeed in danger when companies can't hire foreign-born engineers and technical experts because too few visas are available. As a result, many companies are moving operations to other countries that don't have restrictions on the number of immigrants they hire.

Success, he said, depends on creating new alliances among organized labor, business, and political organizations.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.