BLOOMINGTON — Local jobs from farmhand to engineer are being held back by a lack of national immigration reform, local employers said at a panel hosted Wednesday by the McLean County Chamber of Commerce.
The discussion, at the chamber’s headquarters in Bloomington, brought together local business leaders and representatives of groups such as the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition and Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform to hear panelists speak about the local effect of national immigration laws that many called “broken.”
“We hear about how immigration reform will benefit high-tech Silicon Valley companies, but the reality is reform also will benefit large Midwest manufacturing companies like Caterpillar,” said Mark Peters, corporate counsel for Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc.
Peters joined other panelists in calling for a loosening of caps on the number of green cards issued to “high-skilled” workers in the science and engineering fields, a uniform employee verification system across all states and a clear path to citizenship for guest workers.
Caterpillar is at a disadvantage compared to its competitors abroad because of restrictions on the number of foreign workers it can hire under current laws — even as it faces a shortage of qualified American workers, Peters said. Guest workers seeking U.S. citizenship under the current system may wait as long as a decade to be naturalized as their careers stagnate.
“The last time our laws were updated was when Ronald Reagan was president,” said Peters, referring to immigration reform in 1986. “Our technology has changed dramatically, yet our immigration laws have stayed the same.”
Another panelist, Pat Bane, employed seven migrant workers who have since become his entire permanent staff at the Bane Family Pork Farm, a swine farm he owns near Arrowsmith. He called for a guest worker program for farm workers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He pays some of his workers as much as $17 an hour for jobs he says require skill and patience.
“The United States is the envy of the world when it comes to producing food,” Bane said. “We have the climate, soil, infrastructure, financing. It would be a shame if we didn’t have the resources in labor that we need.”
The question can’t just be one of economics, either, added panelist the Rev. Anthony Lee, pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, both in Bloomington. Reform would prevent the victimization of illeagal immigrants who feel unable to go to police for help because of their legal status.
“It is a question of human dignity,” Lee said. “We can look at numbers and statistics, but we can forget that these people we’re talking about have families.”