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Discussion: Solutions to Iowa Immigration and Workforce Issues

posted on June 6, 2008 at 2:12 PM

Is there a practical and legal means of utilizing Iowa's undocumented workforce? If not, what can the state of Iowa do to implement its own program for the good of the state? What are the cost and benefits of such an effort?


Yeager: Here to help us work through these questions is Lori Chesser, an immigration attorney with the Davis-Brown law firm, and Ted Sporer, also a lawyer and also chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. To the two of you, welcome to The Iowa Journal. Lori, I want to start with you, if you had the Governor's ear right now what would you tell him that the state of Iowa needs to do about immigration?

Chesser: Well, right now I would tell him that he really needs to push our federal government to fix our immigration system so we do have legal means to bring the workers that we need because immigration is a federal issue at this point. And, we need to let them know strong and clear that we need to change this law.

Yeager: So, you're saying the environment for the state isn't there to necessarily push the federal, it's going to have to be pushing more of the federal system?

Chesser: Well, right now immigration is controlled at the federal level. Now, we could think about doing a very innovative program where it would be the state controlling, you know, having some ratio of that. But right now that would require federal legislation as well. So, it's really in the hands of the federal government that the need to hear from the state governments that this has to be fixed.

Yeager: The states need to pony up or at least talk about it a little bit more. Do you think that's going to be a big issue or has been a big issue? Why has this issue been around for so long?

Sporer: I think this issue is around and will stay around because there are three competing objectives and goals I think that everybody has in our society in some way or to some extent. The first goal is the promise of every sovereign nation to its citizens that we will secure our borders and control who comes and goes from the country, particularly who enters. Second is a competing goal of we need more people. I think your intro was absolutely on point. Iowa desperately needs more population and quite frankly we're not breeding them. And third, you have the longer term and almost uniquely American tradition of immigrant assimilation. I want to echo what Lori said, we can't achieve any of those goals until the federal government becomes serious about those three, meeting all three of those objectives and probably doing that in the sequence that I outlined. For example, there won't be any political will in this country to ameliorate and seriously address problems with the influx of people into the United States until our government, including our state governments, can show the public we seriously intend to enforce the immigration laws. And disgraceful things like Postville and this excuse that we were hearing from Kay doesn't help the public will when an employer who obviously has prevalent, unlawful employment occurring at his plant says, oh, I'm shocked, I can't believe it happened here. That's preposterous.

Yeager: You talk about, it's going to have to come from the federal government. But what about -- can the state of Iowa lead on this and at least talk to its federal representatives? We just saw a moment there, what about the RICO Act and what that would have to do?

Sporer: Well, I think there's a couple of things. Iowa does not have a state RICO action.

Yeager: Well, first tell me what RICO Act is.

Sporer: Well, Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, it originally was a way to get to gangs back in the 40s, now it's used to punish all kinds of organized criminal activity. I think that Iowa should adopt, I'm just speaking for myself, we clearly need to adopt a domestic local RICO statute that allows the state to take action against these employers who clearly are employing large quantities of illegal aliens, they know they're doing it, they impose a tremendous social cost on the communities in which that happens because $5 an hour is not a living wage, they impose tremendous cost on the locals and they are exploitative of the immigrants. And those are all socially bad things. And to answer your other question, or maybe I've reversed ...

Yeager: Well, can we go back to RICO, we'll get to that other one. But what can the state do under RICO?

Sporer: Well, one thing they can do is the state can report clear lawbreakers and cooperate with the enforcement of the federal immigration laws with the national authorities, the federal authorities in the northern and the southern district of Iowa. I don't know if they do or do not cooperate. The appearance is certainly one that the state is extremely passive in getting involved in those kind of investigations. Former Governor Vilsack was the governor and their complaint about the Marshalltown raid was they didn't, the federal authorities didn't communicate the media strategy and that's not cooperation, that's infantile whining.

Chesser: You know what, I think we're really wrong to go down this criminalization road, though, because we're not going to be able to fix this problem until we can get more legal means to come. And so we can start criminalizing people and putting everyone in jail but we have to realize there's a much bigger cost to that to the state.

Yeager: And what are some of those -- what are some ways that we can, innovations or policy changes, what can we do?

Chesser: Well, again, I think it's in the hands of the federal government. We can certainly enforce our currently on the books wage an hour, child labor, all those things, we can put more resources toward that so we're getting the employers who actually are breaking the laws already on the books. But I don't think we need more crimes on the books. I think what we need is more Visas from the federal government. So, we've got to really keep our focus there because Postville is a devastated community right now and it's not just the workers that came that are bearing the brunt of this, it's the entire community. If we do, you know, what Ted is suggesting here it's going to have a huge social cost.

Sporer: Well, I want to follow up on what Lori said because I actually, what I'm talking about are two problems that are happening simultaneously and have to be solved simultaneously. On one end, we certainly have to make it very unattractive to employers to employ illegal aliens. It's hard to morally blame somebody who comes to America to find a better life, my grandparents did. And at the same time we have a very badly broken immigration system that does not process people quickly enough. I think the expression of tight fences with big gates are exactly I think what we're talking about here. We have got to find a way to bring people -- one of the things the state of Iowa can do, for example, I think Governor Ray did ...

Yeager: I was going to say, could it repeat what Governor Ray did in the 70s?

Sporer: I think exactly. One of the things we could do is we could begin importing labor lawfully. We should have a state agency that helps people become citizens and people who are living here that are lawfully here to help maintain their lawful status I know they have to refile episodically and also to help people who are here who are illegal only because there has been a Visa expiration or some other bureaucratic problem. I find it very hard and very inhumane to kick somebody out of the country merely because the State Department, which is a horrible bureaucracy, extremely incompetent bureaucracy, why that incompetent bureaucracy simply hasn't gotten around to issuing the permit to stay in the United States.

Chesser: I was just going to say, I mean, it's very different, though, from what Governor Ray did because there's refugee allocation that we could take some of that allocation to Iowa. But there isn't an allocation, there's no path, there's no laws. So, to do these things would still require federal law. We can't do them in Iowa.

Yeager: But it was kind of an experience done then. Could Iowa do the same thing again now? What if Governor Culver tomorrow calls up and says, Iowa wants to be a pilot program for the whole country and we want to bring the immigrants here because we need to fill the workers, I need 5000 workers and I'm willing to do it? Do you think the climate is there to do it? Or do you think something like that would go forward if the Governor would make a comment on that?

Chesser: I think it's a great idea but we do have to realize that people need to understand the immigration system a little bit better including our congressmen so that they can see where the real problem lies. So, I think it would be great but we need to educate them.

Yeager: You're saying the real problem isn't so much the bureaucracy, it's more of ... ?

Chesser: It's the system, the system is outdated, inadequate, there's not enough visas for people to come here. There's no way for people to come here legally.

Yeager: And the primary, what you do, is more of the skilled labor positions that come in, the engineers, the doctors, those types. And you're doing a lot of paperwork and there's a lot of work to be done and you could probably use more help in doing that.

Chesser: Sure.

Yeager: What would the infrastructure take, what would we need for that infrastructure to get to the point where we'd be able to accept maybe one to four or five thousand workers?

Chesser: Well, certainly there would need to be a growth in infrastructure but I don't think that, our major problem isn't the bureaucracy, it's not that they're not processing fast enough, it's just that, for instance, we don't have for sort of lower skilled labor, for instance, we don't have any temporary program for them except seasonal work. And so most jobs aren't seasonal now, particularly in Iowa. If we just had a path, if we just had a way for unseasonal, you know, permanent jobs in a sense, in terms of year round jobs for people to come then the government could take care of that. We could do that. There are systems in place. It's the lack of legislation to allow that to happen that is getting in our way.

Sporer: Well, the history of that is, I think, significant about what Lori is talking about. In the middle of the baby boom or when the youngest baby boomers were babies in 1963 or 1964 we changed a dramatic change in our immigration policy to favor the upper end income and educated immigrants whereas previously there had been little or not targeting behind it. We just said, come to America. Well, then we started to fill up and we had this enormous generation of people who seemed that that large generation would fill the jobs forever. We're retiring now. Our generation that follows the baby boom generation is half as big as our generation. We need more -- and that generation is breeding at a lower rate even.

Yeager: It's probably going to be half again.

Sporer: Yes, so we physically, in Iowa, we're physically dying. We are literally dying as a state. Eventually the last person to the funeral home will turn off the lights and we'll be done. We need more people and the obvious logical place to look for immigrants would be the closest countries, Canada and Mexico. Canada has its own birth problem, they don't have enough people either. Mexico has too many people. It seems that we should be doing things nationally and locally to encourage people to come from Central America and Mexico to Iowa to do what my grandparents did, cut meat at Merle Meat Company. It's the same kind of principle 100 years later with the complications of the war on terror, of course, which means we really need to have a lot better idea who is coming here to cut the meat so that we know that they're not going to put niacin in Saylorville reservoir. But that can be done but it does take a change in the federal law. The federal laws have to be changed to allow the importation of more labor and much more lower end unskilled labor. It's very hard to persuade an American to cut meat.

Yeager: Right, there's not many folks who have been in Iowa who are inside those plants right now and they haven't been there for quite a while.

Sporer: And that's why those plants are closing.

Yeager: Because if we take all of those workers out, chances are the Postville is going to close, the Swift is going to close in Marshalltown, what's in Perry will close, there's no workers there.

Sporer: Right, there are not enough people so if we don't address those issues we're doomed. But since the state of Iowa can't fully resolve that problem one thing we could do is we could have part of our enormous state government, something like six times bigger than our population, we could take some of those people away -- like the money we spend on the Highway Patrol enforcing traffic laws within city limits. Why don't we just take that money and use it to try and help some immigrants who either are here lawfully and are just tangled in the bureaucracy or going out and recruiting people to come here? That would be a good place to look for some money.

Yeager: What about -- you talked highway but driver's licenses. Would that be one of those responses, those issues that could document who is here, we would know who is here? Is that a path that the Highway Patrol could maybe do what a Highway Patrol will do sometimes when they pull somebody over?

Sporer: Well, if you mean by that issuing driver's licenses to illegal aliens I don't think that's ever going to work because those licenses can then be used to get plane tickets. I don't think we should do anything where we say if you have broken the law that's okay because we need you -- at the point where our country says we are no longer willing to enforce a whole variety of crimes that are committed in the course of illegally entering the United States, hiring people who illegally enter the United States, enrolling them in unions, there are a lot of crimes that are committed. If we ever say we will sacrifice our national laws for somebody else's profit then we're in trouble because once you go down that slippery slope then you're reversing the last 100 years of American history.

Yeager: So, to change the future of history do we need to appoint a federal task force, a state task force, somebody of a blue ribbon panel to look into this, Lori, ways that would reduce some of the red tape that you have to go through when filing visa applications? What could be a way to get us to that next step?

Chesser: Well, I keep sounding like a broken record and I don't mean to but it's just really true that federal law, we need to change it. And so what Iowa could do, there was, for instance, a task force on public safety at the end of Vilsack's administration and they actually came down to the opposite conclusion that Ted just proposed which is that they thought it would be a good idea to have driver's licenses for anyone in Iowa as long as they could prove who they were because then we have more public safety. And, for instance, on reporting workplace violations, when people aren't here legally they don't want to report and so then some of these violations go unaddressed. So, we can do some things like that. But the main thing is to send this message that we have to change the way we're doing things and we can change it, it's not that hard to get more visas, it's just that we can't do it ourselves.

Yeager: Send a message in one minute.

Sporer: In one minute I can tell you the blue ribbon panel you're talking about, we have one of those, we spend billions of dollars a year on it. It's called the Congress of the United States. So, congressmen, do your job. This is a problem. You have the means to solve it, unlimited resources in trying to ascertain the correct solution, apply the unlimited resources, do your job, solve this problem. It can be done. It takes the political will to do it and Congress is demonstrably lacking in political will.

Yeager: And maybe they will and maybe they won't but we're going to have to play that out. In the final 30 seconds, Lori, what are the top -- can you lobby? Is that something that a person like you should do or any immigrants who are here?

Chesser: Well, I think anyone can go to the government and talk to them and I do lobby quite a bit. But the most important thing is for Iowans to tell their congressman just what Ted said.

Yeager: Very good, I appreciate it. This is a very good discussion. This was Ted Sporer and Lori Chesser, thank you very much for coming in tonight for The Iowa Journal.

Tags: campaign 2008 education Hispanics immigration Iowa jobs Marshalltown politics Postville raids


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