WILLMAR -- Studies show that new Americans do not take jobs away from native-born folks, says a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce official. The only exception is native-born folks who don't have a high school diploma. At that level there is some competition.
"But the studies overwhelming show that immigrants fill jobs that are key to economic growth,'' says Bill Blazar, the chamber's senior vice president for public affairs and business development.
For example, half the cows in Minnesota are milked by immigrants. If immigrants didn't milk those cows, the milk truck drivers, the cheese plant workers and veterinarians wouldn't have jobs, he says.
"It starts with having somebody who's willing to milk cows 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,'' said Blazar. "Who applies for those jobs today? It's overwhelmingly immigrant workers because the native-born children are not interested in doing that kind of work.''
Blazar commented in an interview Thursday after speaking in Willmar at the last of seven educational forums conducted around the state by the Business and Advocacy Immigration Coalition. The coalition is an organization of business, faith, immigrant advocacy and labor groups promoting the importance to Minnesota of federal immigration reform.
Blazar and John Keller, executive director of the Minnesota Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul, made similar presentations at the six previous forums and spoke to 31 people Thursday afternoon at Ridgewater College.
The coalition says Minnesota's work force is declining. Even during challenging economic times, a wide range of jobs are unfilled and employers frequently rely on immigrants to fill these positions.
When these jobs are not filled, the economy as a whole does not function properly. Immigrants help relieve the worker shortage for many companies and immigrant workers with a wide variety of skill sets are needed, the coalition says.
However, Congress has failed to pass comprehensive reform to address current and future immigration issues. As a result, states and local governments are enacting immigration legislation. Most of these proposals put more of the burden on employers to check immigration status and in effect enforce federal law.
If states continue on this path, the coalition says, a system that is already cumbersome and at times unfair would not only become more confusing and expensive to manage, but also unpredictable, even inhumane, for workers and employers alike.
Blazar says the current system is not in tune with the nation's or Minnesota's economy. He said things like higher education and birth rate need to work together with the immigration system, but the system is "pretty much dysfunctional'' and not serving anybody's purpose.
"Because the systems of verification don't work and because we don't have a system of relating immigration to the condition of the economy so that we know how many new Americans we need and because of all that doesn't work, frankly the security part doesn't work either,'' says Blazar.
"Instead of focusing the system on some of the security needs of the country -- keeping terrorists out and dealing with human trafficking or drugs -- we're busy trying to solve the work force issues,'' Blazar says. "If we had reform, the work force issues would go away and the immigration system could focus on the security issues, which is what I think the American people would want.''
Keller says individuals waiting five to 10 years or more for government visas and approvals would find other ways to reunite with their families.
"So in lots of ways, it's a humane issue about the unity of families, and ironically the objective of the current system is to keep families together but it's gotten so taxed and unworkable that it's actually keeping families apart. That removal of the family side of immigration reform will alleviate a lot of these long waits,'' Keller says.
The Rev. Naomi Mahler, director of The Link in Spicer, says comprehensive immigration reform would replace illegality with a system based on legal presence and legal entry, thus restoring the rule of law to a chaotic system while also protecting the basic dignity and lives of fellow brothers and sisters.
Keller says building coalitions and public education are important.
"There has to be a statewide conversation about what are the options we have as a state and nation, have a factual conversation and include more diverse points of view from different segments of the economy and faith and labor, and come together to solve complex problems,'' he says.
More on the coalition is available at www.mnbic.org.