Coalition of Midwest business leaders pushes for immigration reform

One business leader said immigration reform is needed because immigrant workers will help stabilize the restaurant industry that is still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Kristine Hillmer, from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said immigration reform was needed to ensure immigrant workers help sectors like restaurants recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

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A coalition of business leaders in the agriculture and hospitality industries across the Midwest are among those pushing for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.

During a news conference Wednesday, members of the American Business Immigration Coalition from surrounding states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana tied the need for immigration reform to ensuring a stable workforce helps businesses recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Kristine Hillmer, the CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said the number one concern she’s hearing from restaurant owners is the need for workers. As it is, Hillmer said some have estimated that restaurants won’t fully recover from the coronavirus pandemic until 2024.

“I fear without the availability of employees, including immigrants, the recovery will take even longer,” Hillmer said. “Restaurants’ survival include immigrants working to serve you in your favorite places to dine. Without immigrants, many great restaurants will continue to struggle and some will not survive.”

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Guadalupe Perales, the director of the United Farmworkers Foundation in Michigan, said undocumented immigrant farmworkers continued working throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which helped the food supply chain across the country.

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Many also spoke about the need for immigrant workers in the agriculture sector. In Michigan, there are an estimated 40,000 undocumented farmworkers, said Guadalupe Perales, the director of the United Farmworkers Foundation in Michigan. Across the country, there are about 2.4 million farmworkers and it’s estimated that about half are undocumented, Perales said.

“I have family members who have risked their lives working in the fields during the pandemic to provide food for the American people,” Perales said. “They have worked picking and pruning blueberries, peaches and Christmas trees.”

In addition to an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws, Perales and others are pushing for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill was passed in March in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Senate has not taken action on it.

The bill calls for changes to the H-2A program, which can be used by agriculture businesses to legally hire immigrant workers. Some of the proposed changes includes guaranteed minimum work hours and opening it to more agriculture work rather than just seasonal.

Chris Alpers, an apple and cherry orchard owner in Michigan, said he supports the proposed changes to the program to make it more of a streamlined process. Alpers said he turned to the H-2A program to hire immigrant farmworkers as it became more difficult to find local, skilled workers who wanted to work during the harvest season.

“My biggest worry is not being able to secure adequate labor during these times,” Alpers said about the time-sensitive harvest season of apples and cherries. “There is no insurance for no labor.”

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Chris Alpers said he supports immigration reform. He started to hire immigrant workers through the H-2A program a couple years ago after he was unable to secure local workers during the harvest season at his Michigan business.

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The coalition of business leaders is the latest group to push for immigration reform. In Chicago, a resolution in the City Council was recently introduced that would call on Congress to provide a pathway for undocumented immigrants nationwide to become residents and eventually have the option to become U.S. citizens.

The coalition’s efforts come after a federal judge in Texas ordered the government to stop making decisions on first-time applicants for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, putting the future of many young immigrants in limbo.

Cesar Grajales, of the LIBRE Initiative, said during the news conference Wednesday that some DACA recipients have now become parents adding that the changes to the program will affect their children.

“Terminating the program without a solution will mean that well over a quarter of U.S. children will be at risk of having one or both of their parents removed,” Grajales said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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