Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Death of Immigration Bill could hurt local economy

County commissioners believe Blaine will feel effect

Express Staff Writer

Migrant workers comprise a significant portion of the local workforce. Some of Blaine County?s elected officials believe Congress? denial of an immigration overhaul will certainly affect the local economy. Photo by Willy Cook

Ketchum was still chilled in early morning shade as Rodrigo prepared for the workday at a construction site. He smiled beneath his yellow hard hat when a reporter told him he knows the town of Patzcuaro where Rodrigo is from in central Mexico. Rodrigo said he is has been here for five years and has legal status. Some of his friends do not.

"Very bad," he said in Spanish when asked about the Senate killing an immigration overhaul bill last week. The bill proposed a process for illegal immigrants in this country to become legal. Some Republican opponents going against President George W. Bush label this amnesty.

Some of Rodrigo's immigrant friends, who have been here eight or 10 years, definitely want legal status, but to others it's just business as usual, Rodrigo said. It all depends on the government.

With 53 senators voting against continuing debate on the 761-page bill it is unlikely to surface again in this presidency.

"The bill would have coupled tough border enforcement measures and a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants, a new guest- worker system for foreigners seeking entry and dramatic changes to the system of legal immigration," according to a published report in The Washington Post.

The Senate's action, or inaction depending on point-of-view, will reverberate in the Wood River Valley local politicians and employers said.

"I think it's going to have an impact," said Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael. "I think it's going to continue to be difficult for people to fill jobs here in the valley."

Michel said she thinks there will be more pressure on employers now.

"The system is broken. They had an opportunity to start building it. Instead Congress has chosen to spend billions on fences and not address workforce issues," she said. "It's very disappointing that we can't begin to change the law to help address this critical issue."

One border state senator expressed frustration with a number of security issues related to the bill.

"The American people don't have faith in their government's ability to win a war, enforce border security or even process passport requests," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of the bill's sponsors, told the Post.

Regarding fences, it will cost several million dollars for the government to remove a section of border fencing installed near Columbus, N.M., after it was discovered it was actually built on Mexican soil. Mexico sent a polite note asking the U.S. government to re-install the fencing on U.S. territory. Michael labeled fences as "stupid."

Many lawmakers across the country are hoping that part of the Immigration Bill, called AgJobs, can be resurrected. It would open a path to legal status for immigrants who work in agriculture.

Farmer and Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen does not have use any farm labor on his grain and hay farm south of Belleville, but he said the situation is difficult for other more labor-intensive farms.

"The current immigration policies are having a detrimental effect on agriculture in Idaho," he said. "Something has got to change. It's getting harder and harder to find farm labor in Idaho ... guys are having a harder time finding qualified labor."

Schoen said immigrant labor was paid more in the construction and landscaping trades ,and that put a further crunch on agriculture.

Dave Wilson, owner of Wilson Construction in Ketchum, was deeply involved with the immigration bill as president of the National Association of Homebuilders in 2005. His group, with 260,000 member firms, supported aspects of the bill. They had problems with sections that said rules on employee verification could be changed and that contractors would be responsible for their sub-contractors verifying an employee's legal work status.

The upshot of bill's demise is murky, he said.

"If they increase enforcement, obviously it's going to have an effect on all industries."

Wilson said he was unsure what the impact would be here noting that Idaho does not use many day laborers like California, for instance.

"It's pretty sad," he said. "They have got to do something, they have got to secure the borders."

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is a supporter of the Immigration Bill.

"Everyone can agree there is a problem that needs to be solved," Craig said. "We have seen and will continue to see our farmers suffer from a labor crisis."

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, voted against the bill. While immigration change is needed he called the billed flawed and is against the "amnesty" provision, reported a news release from his office.

President Bush also expressed his chagrin.

"Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress's failure to act on it is a disappointment," he said.

Failure on any immigration accord cuts on both sides of the Rio Grande. Political pundits in Mexico say former Mexican President Vicente Fox had a feckless six-year term because he failed to gain immigration reform for his citizens on the other side of the border. Mexican presidents are constitutionally limited to one, six-year term.

Michael said the issue is one of immigrants adding to the American melting pot.

"Those that are here illegally—we need to give them an opportunity to become legal," she said. "They're valuable members of our community."

Hector, who asked that his last name not be used, a 15-year, legal resident of the Wood River Valley sees yet a bigger concern.

"I can see the misconceptions one culture has with the other ... That's one of the biggest concerns."

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