As Congress gears up for the final months before the summer break, one of the issues on the front burner on Capitol Hill could have major implications for the gaming industry and its employees. Immigration reform has long been a subject of discussion in this country, but recent calls for enhanced border security and stricter criminal penalties for illegal immigrants have generated a firestorm, and members have vowed to pass legislation before the summer recess.
There is no doubt that current immigration policy in this country is broken. The issue is a volatile one, and passions already have flared on both sides. And, with a number of competing bills in Congress generating significant debate, immigration reform is poised to not only be a hot topic this spring, but potentially one of the defining issues of the 2006 mid-term elections.
The problem is that, as the rhetoric grows, some involved in the issue appear poised to enhance border security at the expense of the continued health of an American economy that has grown increasingly dependent on immigrants. According to recent research conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, undocumented immigrants make up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. labor force. The study estimates a total of between 11.5 million and 12 million undocumented immigrants currently are in this country. Of that group, the study found that 7.2 million are employed.
According to the Pew study, 31 percent of undocumented workers are employed in the service industry, making the issue of immigration reform especially important to the commercial gaming industry. In fact, a sizeable number of our industry’s hotel, restaurant and other vital workers are immigrants. With this in mind, several industry groups have stepped up to protect the rights of gaming industry employees who could be affected by the new laws.
For its part, UNITE HERE, the group led by John Wilhelm that represents a majority of unionized gaming industry employees, has laid out a set of principles for immigration reform that calls for comprehensive immigration legislation that rewards work, reunites families, restores the rule of law, reinforces national security and respects the rights of all workers, whether immigrants or not. UNITE HERE states that immigration reform must provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and protect workers by creating wider legal channels and a worker visa program that protects the wages and working conditions of both U.S.-born and immigrant workers. Additionally, UNITE HERE has called for legislation that promotes citizenship and helps local communities.
UNITE HERE has expressed support for a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would increase border security while at the same time creating a temporary guest worker program that has at its core a mechanism for immigrants already working in the U.S. to eventually apply for permanent citizenship here.
The group is less favorable of the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December, which does not include a guest worker provision. The House bill appears to approach immigration as simply a border-control issue, authorizing the hiring of new border agents and tougher penalties for those who help illegal immigrants. Another proposed Senate bill also falls short, allowing certain kinds of workers to enter the country legally, but failing to provide any opportunity for permanent residency or citizenship.
The American Gaming Association has echoed the principles of the UNITE HERE approach, joining with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other national business groups in calling for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that takes into account both border security and the creation and protection of employment opportunities for the millions of immigrant workers who help our businesses succeed.
At the end of last year, I and the other members of this coalition sent a letter to our members of Congress in Washington outlining the importance of practical, fair and workable immigration policies. Our group reiterated that our nation’s projected job growth, combined with the current aging workforce, means we will need an increasing number of immigrants to fill future jobs. We also noted it is irrational to continue to deny legal status to the millions of individuals who contribute so much to our national economy and play such a vital role in the success of our day-to-day business.
In fact, our national economy and national security will be better served by identifying undocumented workers and recognizing their contributions by providing a mechanism by which they can legally work and, under certain criteria, ultimately gain permanent residency.
Make no mistake – the U.S. commercial gaming industry, like other American businesses, believes in the rule of law and will support the enforcement of realistic regulations. However, it is incumbent upon Congress to create laws that are easily understood, easy to comply with and ensure our industry’s continued access to the legal work force needed to sustain our growing economy.
To look at immigration merely as a border control issue is short-sighted and potentially detrimental. In crafting legislation, Congress must pay careful attention to the workforce and demographic realities that contribute to the current problems, and design realistic, workable solutions. A recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy showed that a widely used guest worker program is in fact a vital element of successfully managing U.S. borders, lessening illegal entry pressure by channeling it toward legal options.
With so many competing proposals and viewpoints in Washington and around the country, the battle over immigration reform will no doubt be long and hard-fought.
As the voice of the American commercial casino industry on Capitol Hill, the AGA will continue to show that the twin goals of a secure border and a thriving economy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are dependent upon one another. Any reform needs to include the creation of channels to help our industry legally get the workers it needs, and to reward those who help our companies succeed.
Our employees are what make the American gaming industry strong, and the AGA will work to protect their rights. The AGA will continue to join with other business groups to monitor progress on immigration reform, working to ensure that all our employees retain the right to work and contribute to our companies, their families and to society.