St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Embracing immigrants

A hot economy and the scarcity of workers it has produced has helped transform attitudes about immigration.

By JEFF HARRINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


TAMPA -- Jeff Wolder is convinced a hidden economy of illegal immigrants is silently thriving throughout the Tampa Bay area.

The dishwasher in the back kitchen of a restaurant. The construction workers huddled by themselves on a job site. The visiting "cousin" who speaks no English and works at a gas station.

As head of enforcement for the Tampa office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Wolder receives as many as 10 calls or letters a week about alleged illegal immigrants. But he rarely checks into the tips. "I just don't have those kinds of resources," he said. His staff of four investigators is absorbed in tracking immigrants with criminal records.

Whatever happened to the "get tough" policies on immigrants enacted in 1996? Those headlines of INS workplace raids at hotels and restaurants?

Some think the answer lies no further than that favorite election-year mantra: "It's the economy, estupido!"

A hot economy and the scarcity of workers it has produced have done more to transform attitudes about immigration than decades of lobbying by pro-immigrant activists.

Suddenly, almost everybody loves immigrants:

The AFL-CIO has done an about-face from viewing immigrants as competitors to seeing them as potential union members. Labor leaders this year began lobbying to repeal a 1986 law that bars employers from hiring illegal immigrants, a measure that was passed at the urging of unions.

Restaurants, hotels and other service-sector businesses are pushing amnesty plans to increase the pool of entry-level workers.

High-tech companies clamoring for workers want to increase the cap on temporary professional visas granted to immigrants from 115,000 to as many as 200,000 a year. Companies use those visas, called H-1Bs, to sponsor foreigners to work for them for up to six years.

In worker-starved Iowa, political leaders have gone as far as proposing an "immigrant enterprise zone" that essentially would let employers ignore federal immigration laws in hiring.

Even the slow-to-change federal government had an attitude adjustment. While it cut back on workplace raids, the Immigration and Naturalization Service bolstered staff nationwide to speed up the process for issuing "green cards," documents that give immigrants permanent residency in the United States.

"I think it's a sign that we have finally woken up to the fact that the laws of '96 were far too drastic and we were cutting our nose to spite our face," said Cheryl Little, director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "There has been a concerted effort of late to undo some of those laws and recognize that immigration can be a good thing."

Judy Mark of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group in Washington, thinks the "sea change" in acceptance of immigrants has to do with their growing political clout as well.

"We find this whole thing amusing," she said. "We've been fighting for Latino and immigrant issues for years and people slam doors in our faces. Now Republicans and Democrats are all trying to court Latino voters."

The appeal lies in the numbers.

Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate there were about 15.7-million immigrant workers in the country last year, up 17 percent over the past three years. About 5-million of them are illegal immigrants, experts think.

Not that everyone welcomes the newcomers. The Federation for American Immigration Reform has run ads asserting that foreigners are taking jobs away from qualified American workers. A recording at the group's Washington headquarters urgers callers to send their criticisms to Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., co-sponsor of a bill that would raise the ceiling on visas for foreign workers.

Some critics warn that the next economic downturn may bring a backlash against undocumented immigrants. It is undisputed that the immigrant surge has helped keep the economy on track by filling the low-paying service jobs: meat packers, hotel maids, seamstresses, construction workers, fruit and vegetable pickers.

At the same time, foreigners with computer skills and visas increasingly are in demand by high-tech companies.

Barbara Vinton, director of human resources for Tech Data in Clearwater, often runs into the situation on college recruiting trips: foreigners seeking to replace their expiring student visas with work visas by landing a job with the computer reseller.

"I wouldn't say we are out there recruiting for H-1Bs, but there's a higher frequency that we're coming across," Vinton said.

The cry for workers of all kinds is especially strong in Florida, which has a jobless rate slightly under the 4 percent national average.

"We haven't had labor markets as tight as we have today for as long as we have," Orlando economist Hank Fishkind said, adding that the country has tapped into all its labor sources. "We've brought in most of the women that want to work, most of the seniors and teenagers that want to work."

Immigration trends in the United States always have been tied to its labor pool. The Great Depression discouraged immigration so much that by the 1930s, more people left the United States than entered.

During earlier times of prosperity, such as World War II, the need for more workers from overseas was kept in check by a suspicion of immigrants. A prolonged peacetime has chipped away at the distrust.

Even Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, whose carefully chosen utterances draw reverence from both sides of the political aisle, has cited immigration as one of the remedies for a shrinking labor pool that threatens continued economic growth.

Currently about 800,000 immigrants enter the country legally every year compared with about 300,000 who enter illegally.

Congress is considering legislation on two fronts. One, promoted by Republicans and the high-tech industry, is to increase the number of visas allowing professional foreigners to work in the United States. Employers applying to bring in such immigrants must demonstrate that they have tried and failed to find American workers with similar advanced skills.

The other piece of legislation, championed by Democrats and Hispanic groups, would give amnesty to several immigrant groups that were left out of the last general amnesty in 1986. The measure would give Guatemalans, Haitians, Salvadorans and Hondurans who fled civil strife in their homelands the same protections granted to Nicaraguans and Cubans under a 1997 law.

Both measures are caught up in election-year politics. Democrats don't want to agree to the high-tech visas without a commitment to amnesty. Republicans risk alienating the Hispanic vote if the amnesty plan is brought to a vote and defeated.

"We hold no hope we're going to get any type of reform of immigration policy this year. There's just not enough time," said John Gay, co-chairman of the recently founded Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. Gay, who works for the American Hotel and Motel Association, is representing a broad-based group that includes labor, church, business and civil rights leaders.

Mark of the National Immigration Forum is more optimistic about movement on Capitol Hill. She thinks two primary forces behind the measures -- high-tech companies and Latinos -- are too powerful in an election year to be put off.

"Our view is it's not an either/or (with the legislation). You can do both," she said. "That's ultimately what's going to happen."

A change in direction

Immigrant advocacy groups think the changing tone in Washington gave INS commissioner Doris Meissner the political cover she needed to institute sweeping changes that were long talked about.

Earlier this year, Meissner gave the thumbs-up to quicker processing of green cards and thumbs-down to workplace raids. Instead, the emphasis on the enforcement side shifted to stronger border patrols, deportation of illegals with a criminal record and a crackdown on rings that furnish phony documents to immigrants.

"The top priority as far as enforcement is definitely the removal of criminal aliens but also to go after the alien smuggling operations," said Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman in Washington. "Rather than attacking piecemeal, (the agency is) going after the root causes of illegal migration."

The change in direction has trickled down to INS' office in Tampa's Westshore district, which serves west-central Florida. Every weekday morning dozens of immigrants line up waiting to be processed. Between 300 and 400 applicants file through its doors each day.

The Tampa staff charged with processing paperwork for visas and green cards has doubled to 20 in the past two years, and approvals have sped up as a result.

"We've reduced our processing time to about a year and our goal is to get that to around six months," said James Minton, officer in charge of the Tampa operation. "For naturalizations, it was over three years and for (visa) adjustments it took about two years."

Last year, Tampa processed about 4,000 applications seeking permanent residence in the United States; this year Minton expects nearly 5,000 applications to go through.

On the enforcement side, Wolder's staff has stayed flat at fewer than a half-dozen. The investigators focus on keeping track of immigrants with criminal records, particularly those just getting out of prison, and looking for smuggling rings.

"We still want the employers to continue to comply with the law," Minton said, "but we have shifted away from the work site enforcement."

Tim Spridgeon, a Tampa attorney who represents immigrants seeking professional work visas, isn't ready to give the INS a pat on the back yet.

He said most cases, particularly the recently filed ones, are on track to be approved in less than 18 months.

"The older cases (though) are resolving themselves under the old system," he said. "Quite a few cases are still caught in the three-year backlog."

Likewise, Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said the perception that the INS has grown kinder and gentler to immigrants is overblown.

Immigrants with "very minor criminal records" still are being detained and deported, she said.

"The INS jail population is the fastest-growing jail population in the country," Little said. "The INS jails in Florida are overcrowded. They're warehousing more and more people under worse and worse circumstances. I don't think the INS has changed."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which also used information from Times wires.

Immigration by the numbers

Immigrants in U.S. work force: 15.7-million, or 12 percent of the nation's workers.

Estimated number of those workers in the U.S. illegally: 5-million to 6-million.

Percentage of workers whose illegal status is because of expired visas: 41.

Illegal immigrants from Mexico: about 2.7-million, or 54 percent.

Immigrants entering the U.S. legally: about 800,000 a year.

Immigrants entering the U.S. illegally: about 300,000 a year.

Quota of three-year visas granted to high-tech workers: 115,000 in 1999.

Florida's share of illegal immigrants: about 350,000, growing by 20,000 a year.

Annual deportation and formal removal of illegal immigrants in Florida*: 3,725.

Annual voluntary departures of illegal immigrants in Florida*: 2,820.

Fiscal 2001 budget of Immigration and Naturalization Service: $4.8-billion, up 11 percent.

-- Sources: Immigration and Naturalization Service; Times research; Times wire reports.

* In fiscal 1997, the most recent data available.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.