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How bipartisan immigration reform may unlock economic potential in the Intermountain West

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pauses for a reporter as the Senate holds the final vote to confirm Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden’s pick to be secretary of Health and Human Services, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — As a surge of people flow to the U.S. from Mexico, a bipartisan collection of politicians, business leaders and university administrators in the Intermountain West Friday called on Congress to end decades of inaction on comprehensive immigration reform.

Sound immigration solutions, they say, would help states, including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, rebuild and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic while powering the region’s biggest industries such as construction, agriculture, hospitality and tourism.

“It’s always been amazing to me that immigration policy is never framed in what it actually is, which is U.S. economic policy,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. “Federal immigration reform is essential to the success of the United States.”

The American Business Immigration Coalition — Intermountain Chapter held a virtual summit focused on unlocking the area’s economic potential through bipartisan immigration reform.

The coalition promotes commonsense immigration reform that advances economic competitiveness, provides companies with both the high-skilled and low-skilled talent they need, and allows the integration of immigrants into our economy as consumers, workers, entrepreneurs and citizens.

Speakers included Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Arizona Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., GOP Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. Business leaders and university administrators from Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah also participated in the conference.

The Intermountain area is home to about 2.5 million immigrants who pay $18 billion in federal and state taxes each year, according to the American Immigration Council. Together, their economic impact in the region is close to $80 billion per year.

On Thursday, the U.S. House passed the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, two bills that would provide a path to citizenship to millions of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients, temporary protected status holders and agricultural workers without permanent legal status. The bills now head to the Senate for consideration.

While some of the panelists at the summit lauded the passage of those measures, most called for an overhaul of an immigration system they all agree is broken.

“All these bills are important, but we cannot give up until we’ve passed broad reform. We can’t afford another 10 years of Washington doing nothing like this. Our broken system is really great for politicians who use immigration as a political wedge, and we understand that. It is terrible for the country and terrible for our future,” Bennet said.

Derek Miller, president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said bringing together people from both sides of the aisle, especially elected officials, is the most important step toward resolving the issue.

“You’ve heard it said a number of times already that our immigration system is broken. That may be an understatement. In Utah, we believe that it’s more than just broken, that it’s actually upside down and backward,” he said.

“On one hand, we don’t have a secure border that allows us to keep bad actors out,” Miller said. “On the other hand, we don’t have a fully functioning immigration system that allows enough individuals who want to be in this country to be here in order to contribute, to benefit from our economy, to contribute to the economy and also enrich the fabric of our multicultural society.”

Bob Worsely, a former Republican Arizona state senator and American Business Immigration Coalition board member, said the 35-year political war over immigration needs to end.

“We need our politicians to stop bickering about brown, Black, Asian or whatever immigrant under some fantasy of unsustainably low migration rates to protect white majorities in America,” he said.

The U.S. needs immigrants to help feed the economy, Worsley said. The number of illegal immigrants will drop when there are legal paths to cross the border to work in America.

Romney said he is “deeply troubled” by the current situation at the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Droves of people, including many young children, are making the dangerous trip to enter our country illegally. The huge volume of migrants is overwhelming our customs and border protection people, and there’s no question that we need to ensure compassionate care for these children as a result of the crisis at the border,” he said.

But, he said, the U.S. needs to do more to address the factors driving illegal immigration, starting with securing the border with a physical barrier and making E-Verify — a web-based system that allows businesses to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. — permanent and mandatory.

The program is required for all federal employees and some government contractors. About half of U.S. states, including Utah, require employers to use E-Verify. As of May 2019, there were 863,528 employers using E-Verify, accounting for about 14% of U.S. businesses.

Romney favors a merit-based legal immigration system that gives people credit for English fluency, trade or technical skills, advanced degrees and personal savings. Illegal immigration, he said, undermines fairness and order.

Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan said the Colorado ski resort relies on international employees and international tourists, both of which have been hard to come by this season. He said he’s about two workers away from having to close a restaurant this spring.

Despite aggressive hiring efforts and high unemployment, Aspen has been unable to become fully staffed this year. It employs about 4,200 people in peak season.

“I looked ahead and go, ‘Wow, what’s going to happen next year when we anticipate a big snapback in demand,’” he said. “Where are we going to get that staff that allows us to function? I really don’t know.”

Bennet, who co-sponsored the Dream Act in 2009 and 2017, said there’s no reason immigration reform shouldn’t be bipartisan.

In Colorado, which is divided in thirds among Democrats, Republicans and independents, he said he frequently hears that businesses don’t have the skilled labor that they need. Immigration, he said, is about staying competitive in the 21st century.

“Our crazy immigration policy that we have right now serves really no one’s interest except for China in the sense that it makes us less competitive,” he said.

Crow said immigration, innovation and education make up an integrated immigration strategy, and the U.S. can’t be successful without them.

“What we need to explain to the American people that this is the way we grow the economy, the why. What is immigration for? he said. “And then explain to people that we’re going to work definitively to make sure that this is positively disruptive, not negative disruption, which is the present way that people are thinking about this.”