SALT LAKE CITY — Immigration issues will have to be addressed in a large-scale fashion for business and economic development to prosper in the short and long term, a Washington, D.C., insider told an audience of Utah business owners on Thursday.
Speaking at the Salt Lake Chamber, Jeff Lungren — chief health care and immigration lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — told the group that if Congress can come up with a measure to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the Temporary Protected Status program, along with a border security package, then the country could reap significant benefits economically today and into the future.
"That seems like something that is in the realm of the possible given the political environment," he said. The U.S. Chamber has endorsed such a package and believes the programs for those who were brought illegally to the country as children are critical to stabilizing the nation's immigration quandary, a source of angst for decades, he said.
Immigration reform is a matter of grave concern for businesses nationwide across a wide spectrum of industries, he noted.
"Whether it's here in Utah or anywhere across the country, workforce shortages (exist)," Lungren said. "Folks cannot find workers. We've got record low unemployment and it really doesn't matter what industry you're in, they cannot get enough workers."
He said in order to foster continued job growth and fill temporary or full-time positions, the immigration system has to be reformed dramatically or the nation risks losing scores of qualified, talented workers.
"Right now our immigration system is a hindrance toward the growth continuum," he said. "There are some industries that if they have trouble with our immigration system, you'll see them go to Canada. It doesn't benefit us to have an out-of-date immigration system where jobs are being shipped over the border."
He noted that Utah has a shortage of skilled workers in various sectors, including construction and technology, as well as "lesser-skilled" workers.
"They all play a vital role in promoting economic growth and vitality," he said. "If you're going to continue to have workforce shortages, that's jobs that aren't being created here, lost productivity and lost revenue that's being left on the table."
Lungren said immigration reform is a way to promote economic growth at state and national levels.
"It helps our economic competitiveness," he said. "You've got a global marketplace out there."
He said Utah and the U.S. are in competition with Canada and other countries due to the nature of talent mobility. "Those entities that don't recognize that do so to their detriment," he said.
He noted that Canada has launched a marketing campaign to lure immigrants from the United States to the Great White North, employing billboards along California's famed Highway 101 that read, "Having (work visa) problems? Come to Canada."
"The smart policies are ones that produce net benefits," Lungren said. "It helps create jobs. It helps (increase) your economic vitality. It helps you grow and prosper and have healthier communities."
Meanwhile, one local immigration supporter said finding solutions to the ongoing immigration dilemma will help Utah and all other states grow their economies and fill thousands of open employment positions. But the current political climate is an impediment to progress on large-scale reform.
"The politics is definitely preventing (reform) and it's unfortunate," said Luis Garza, executive director at Comunidades Unidas — a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Latino advocacy organization. "It is very clear the benefits of immigration to the economy, but also to families, to culture, to everything."
He said that the lack of political will to permanently address the immigration issue has plagued the nation for more than 20 years, and it has come at a significant cost. To combat that apathy, advocates must forge ahead to implore Congress and local legislators to develop long-term solutions as soon as possible.
"We need to bring this issue to the forefront because it is very important for the state of Utah and for the country," he said. "The more we talk about it, the more likely we are going to be able to make progress."
He added that he was heartened to find local business leaders in attendance voicing their support for immigration reform, and recognizing the value immigrants bring to their companies and their communities.
"It is encouraging that we hear more business leaders coming forward and saying, 'This is important,'" Garza said. "Not only to their bottom line but to their employees' well-being."