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Looking for a Solution in the Trump Era, Business Leaders Gather in Houston for Immigration Summit

Rep. Fletcher says there’s more that unites the two parties than divides them; retiring Rep. Hurd says neither Democratic nor Republican leadership wants to solve it: “We have to jam whoever is in leadership to get this done.”

Just as legislative action appears to be grinding to a halt in Washington amid an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, business leaders and others gathered in Southeast Texas for a day-long summit focused on the next steps in their fight for immigration reform.

One of the speakers at the event in downtown Houston, Texas Association of Business CEO Jeff Moseley, argued the impeachment movement is more of a “distraction” than anything else and he’s hopeful lawmakers in DC will not become singularly focused on that to the exclusion of everything else, as has been predicted by Sen. John Cornyn. 

The Texas Summit on Immigration featured the owners of construction firms, heads of trade associations, and elected officials including Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, and retiring Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. The gathering was sponsored by the American Business Immigration Coalition, FWD.us, Texans for Economic Growth, and the National Immigration Forum.

Rep. Fletcher, the first Democrat to represent the congressional district once held years ago by Rep. George H. W. Bush, said “there are a lot of areas where we are able to reach bipartisan agreement.” She said immigration is unfortunately used as a “wedge issue” at a time when there’s broad agreement among Texans and Americans that the system is broken. Fletcher said her constituents have strong opinions but that doesn’t mean there’s no overlap in the views of conservatives, liberals, and moderates.

“There are people who have called (my congressional office) very concerned about treatment of migrants at the border,” Fletcher said. “And I have people who call who are very concerned about border security.”

“What we have to do is bridge that gap and talk about where there’s commonality,” Fletcher said, lamenting the fact that some in media often oversimplify the issue.

Stan Marek, CEO of the Houston-based specialty construction contractor MAREK, said: “We can solve this problem overnight if we’ve got an ID and tax executive order.”

ID and tax” has become something of a mantra for Marek, who supports comprehensive immigration reform but has also advocated that business interests and immigrant rights activists work toward legal status for undocumented people even if it doesn’t include a more immediate path to citizenship. “Let’s get them out of the shadows,” Marek said.

To do that, Marek proposes issuing government IDs to those who are currently undocumented if they can pass a background check. They should also be required to work for employers who deduct and match taxes, he said. Leaders in law enforcement, health care, and education are supportive of the plan, Marek said.

“We certainly couldn’t have built Texas without immigrants,” Marek said, adding that roughly half of those who work in the Texas construction industry are undocumented. “Not because they want to be but because they have no choice.”

Marek pointed out that when Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts an audit of a company’s workforce, those who are found to be undocumented must be laid off but there is no requirement they be deported. Those who lose their jobs following such an audit usually end up working for unethical employers who pay them cash under the table and certainly do not provide benefits like accident insurance and retirement plans, Marek said.

Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who was honored by the Center for Public Policy Priorities back in Austin, repeatedly stressed during his final regular session in 2017 that business owners need to personally interact with their lawmakers on tough issues.

On that point, Raymond Risk, who heads up the Texas Construction Association, told the Houston audience that business owners are quickly frustrated any time they directly deal with their lawmakers at either the state capitol or the one in DC. “As frustrating as it is…we have to keep pushing,” Risk said.

“Business people are used to saying ‘go do that’ and it happens,” he said. “But that’s not the way it works in Austin or Washington.” Risk said that sense of frustration shouldn’t prevent business owners from getting involved. “You will win,” Risk said. “It may take some navigating or compromising but you’ll get what you want.”

Speaking late in the day, Rep. Hurd said neither Republican nor Democratic leadership in Washington really has the desire to pass legislation that would move the ball forward on immigration.

Faulting both former Speaker Paul Ryan and current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Hurd said “We have to jam whoever is in leadership to get this done.” He said the procedural move known as a discharge petition, effectively bypassing the Office of the Speaker to move a bill from committee to the House floor, is the best shot at progress.

Earlier in the summit, CEO and President of Precision Task Group Massey Villareal, who also serves on the Greater Houston Partnership’s Board of Directors, said “Immigration has become the piñata at the Capitol in Washington.”

“Both sides beat on it and immigrants are caught in the middle,” said Villareal, a longtime Republican. “It’s unfortunate that some people get elected by putting fear into their communities.”

Villareal said that when he met with Jared Kushner in the White House, the conversation on immigration became heated. Villareal said Kushner pushed back against the idea that the administration was taking an anti-immigrant position by pointing out that his own family is made up of immigrants.

Business concerns on this issue are not limited to what happens in Washington, of course.

Zaira Garcia organizes in Texas for FWD.us and said policymakers need to think about a father who’s afraid to drive to work because he doesn’t have a driver’s license or permit and is even more fearful thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 4, the Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation adopted in Texas in 2017. Garcia questioned whether it’s even possible for that man to take care of his family. “If the institution of the family is not well, then it’s really hard for our state to prosper,” she said.

Marek, the construction magnate, said SB 4 has had terrible consequences for an industry he loves.

“We have Latinos – legal Latinos – leaving and going to California where they can get a driver’s license or Colorado where there’s a construction boom,” Marek said. “We’re losing our workers.”

Copyright October 03, 2019, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission.