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Local business leaders call for immigration reform

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State business leaders banded together Wednesday to emphasize the need for more seasonal and temporary workers in South Carolina, citing a just-released report to appeal for larger visa quotas and a more streamlined application process to make foreign-born workers’ path into the state smoother.

The gathering at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce came on the same day a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy (NAE), a group made up of political and business leaders nationwide, was released. The report took a state-by-state look at the contributions of immigrant contributions to the economy.

In S.C., it said, immigrants earned $5.4 billion in 2014 and held $4.1 billion in spending power (income available after federal, state and local taxes). Foreign-born workers made up 5% of the state’s overall population but 6% of its working population, including 9% of its entrepreneurs, the report said, with large concentrations of immigrants in industries such as crop production (30% of workers), services to buildings and dwellings (17%) and construction (16%).

Jeremy Cannon, owner and operator of Cannon Ag Products and a Turbeville farmer, didn’t need a report to tell him how crucial immigrant workers are. He’s seen that proven first-hand, watching crops wither and money disappear because there weren’t enough workers to harvest the produce grown on his farm.

“This year, in cantaloupes alone, we lost over 40,000 cantaloupes, because we could not find the help to harvest them,” said Cannon, who said area farmers have also lost cash cucumber crops because of a lack of laborers. “Congress needs to sit at a table with our business owners, especially the agricultural sector, and see what our needs are. Let’s come up with something viable - a guest worker program, something that’s just for temporary help. We’re hurting.”

Cannon, along with Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry of Central South Carolina and John Durst, president and CEO of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the current visa program is too limiting and labyrinthine, with caps on workers and piles of paperwork. It’s particularly difficult for the agricultural industry to navigate, Cannon said, because farmers often don’t know how many workers they’ll need until they see their crop yields.

“It’s all about timing,” Cannon said. “We don’t know beforehand how many (workers) we’re going to need. We’ve got an idea, but if you make a good crop, you’re going to need more. By the time you could apply for more help, the crops are gone.”

For S.C.’s $18 billion tourism industry, Durst said, it’s a numbers game, and those numbers aren’t adding up.

“Even if it were status quo, we would have a need for workers,” Durst said. “But with our industry growing, we have a greater need for workers.”

In applying for the various types of work visas, employers must demonstrate that hiring an immigrant would not negatively impact similarly positioned American workers. The three men agreed what whatever the cause, be it an unwillingness to do the job or a desire for higher pay, there are not enough local workers to do the work they need done.

“We need immigration reform because we need more workers,” McLeod said. “If we had enough domestic work force available, then we would not be part of this effort. We need more people to help build the structures that are part of the economic recovery. Without the skilled work force, the recovery ends for us.”

Immigration is a hot-button political topic, but there was also a consensus that the issue transcends politics.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Durst said. “Those workers come in and they fill those jobs. That in turn not only pumps their wages and spending power into our economy, it allows the tourism industry to continue to grow.”

Nine building permits issued in York County alone for new hotels underscore the need for more workers, Durst said.

“York County does not have an extensive population base,” he said. “So, question: Where do you get the folks to do those kinds of things? I respectfully submit that what we’re asking for provides part of the answer to that.”

The report also emphasized the role immigrant workers play in highly skilled STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) positions and the health care industry. Relying on data from organizations including the American Community Survey, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Census Bureau, it is backed by NAE partners including Google, Microsoft, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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