Business leaders concerned about backlash from immigration crackdown
By Charlotte Libov
Some business leaders here are concerned that severe policies on illegal immigrants and those who employ them could dampen the vibrant South Florida economy and hamstring a construction industry already beset by worker shortages.
Lani Kahn Drody, president of the Builders Association of South Florida, said she received reports that work stoppages staged by and on behalf of illegal immigrants Monday affected some of her members' construction sites.
"We did get reports from construction sites about absent workers," she said. "We are very careful to make sure all the people who work for us are legal, so they were probably sympathizers. But there are a lot of rumors about INS (the former US Immigration and Naturalization Service) sweeps. It doesn't bode well, not only for the construction industry but for lots of industries."
Ms. Drody is to advocate for a guest-worker program when she represents her association and meets with officials next week in Washington.
"Obviously, we don't think that anybody should be working here illegally, but we support comprehensive immigration reform that creates a guest-worker program that provides an efficient system to deal with it," she said.
"We have a huge labor shortage within the construction industry. We need to provide an opportunity here for the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants working in the US. You can't just stick your head in the sand. They're here."
Lee Sandler, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's federal advocacy committee and vice chairman of the Beacon Council's immigration committee, has lobbied in Washington for what he called a "rational immigration policy" and expects that he and his colleagues will do so in the future and be "reenergized," he said.
He said he expects the issue to be on the front burner when the chamber holds its annual goals conference May 19-21 to set its agenda for the coming year.
Mr. Sandler said he believes recent statements from the Department of Homeland Security vowing to go after employers who illegally employ undocumented workers will have a chilling effect on workers and business owners.
"Traditionally, enforcement has been to get the illegal. But Homeland Security is now focusing on employers," Mr. Sandler said.
He said the department has announced that it will go after employers with criminal sanctions if they knowingly hire illegal immigrants. "This means that companies really need to have compliance programs in place," he said.
"They believe that a lot of false Social Security numbers are being placed into their system, and Homeland Security doesn't get access to that information, so they're seeking it from employers," he said.
"There is a lot of political pressure being used in places like Texas and Arizona, but we have the same vulnerabilities," Mr. Sandler said. "This has strong implications here."
He said he is concerned about the prospect of criminal prosecution and the "chilling" effect that would have, both on employers and undocumented workers.
"If there is enforcement action, people could be severely penalized, especially since the Department of Homeland Security has made it a policy that they would prosecute," Mr. Sandler said.
"So that creates a very serious problem. Employers need to revisit all their procedures to make sure they are relying on credible documents," he said, noting that professional analysis sometimes is needed to distinguish authentic documents from false ones.
Such policies, he said, "force people underground. They fear they will have to forge documents to get employment. It's very intimidating to both employers and employees unless there is some avenue for those here illegally so they can function here and that there is some potential for citizenship."
"Not to get philosophical about it," Ms. Drody said, "but everybody who is here came over from somewhere. Who am I to say who belongs here and who doesn't?"