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Unity the aim of immigration summit

Business experts convene to weigh immigration reform's price for Florida.

Published February 22, 2007


LARGO - Are visa restrictions enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks harming key Florida industries such as tourism and international investment?

Is the state's agricultural sector in danger if immigration reform to legalize undocumented farmworkers doesn't pass in Congress this year?

Some leading business experts in Florida's private and public sectors think the answer to both questions is yes.

Those issues will be explored in a first-of-its-kind immigration summit today in Largo, organized by the nonprofit Florida research institute TaxWatch.

As the prospects of immigration reform remain uncertain in Washington, one goal of the summit is to create an association of businesses across industries to lobby state legislators on immigration and visa reforms.

"Our goal is that at the end of the day we are going to do a call to action," said Victoria Zepp, executive director of TaxWatch's Center for a Competitive Florida. "It's a federal issue, but here in Florida we can make the case why we need certain reforms."

The summit will be attended by leading business experts and business owners from around the state in agriculture, banking and international trade, tourism, health care, and research and education.

"Many of our workers are immigrants and we rely heavily on an immigrant workforce," said Michelle Williamson, director of human resources for G&F Farms in Hillsborough County. "From an agricultural standpoint, I'm hoping that we will be able to build consensus among the other industries in Florida."

The event will touch on potential legislation for undocumented immigrants in Washington, since those in Florida's agriculture industry say many farmworkers are in the country illegally.

"A year ago, we had a pretty significant farmworker shortage and that could be the case again this year," said Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the state's Department of Agriculture. "Commissioner (Charles) Bronson thinks immigration reform is absolutely indispensable."

A bill submitted this year in the Florida Legislature by Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, which would make it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented immigrants, will be discussed.

"I know a lot of businesses are very concerned about that legislation," said Zepp.

The association of businesses the summit will try to create fits into the strategy by pro-immigrant advocates to lobby state legislators at home.

The group would be under the umbrella of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition based in Washington, which has formed such associations in Texas and a few other states.

"Congressional offices are getting 400 e-mails a day from Lou Dobbs voters," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and scheduled speaker at the summit, referring to the CNN host known for his anti-illegal immigration views. "Business has not been playing in proportion to its stakes."

Fast Facts:


Immigration summit

Immigration Summit: Florida's Tipping Point - Balancing Physical and Economic Security Post 9-11.

When: 8:30 a.m. today

Where: Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College's EpiCenter, 13805 58th Street N., Largo.

To attend: $250 for members of Florida TaxWatch; $400 for nonmembers.

[Last modified February 21, 2007, 22:52:43]

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