WILLMAR - The immigration discussion in the United States has a lot of moving pieces and sides. At the Willmar Conference Center Thursday morning the talk focused on one specific issue.
"It's the economy stupid," said William Blazar, quoting the famous campaign slogan from Bill Clintion's 1992 presidential campaign.
Blazar, retired senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the economic necessity of immigration reform to a large and diverse crowd gathered at the conference center. He was invited to speak by the Willmar Area Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner, with the presentation sponsored by Heritage Bank.
According to Blazar's presentation, Minnesota has an immigrant population of approximately 488,000, about 9 percent of the state's total population.
"Absent immigration, we would be losing people right now," Blazar said.
Those immigrants, whether authorized or not, have a significant impact on the state and national economy. Some 83 percent of immigrants between the ages of 16 and 64 are working and spend approximately $11.5 billion per year in the state economy.
"New Americans are highly motivated to be part of the economy and do well," Blazar said.
Immigrants also pay $4.3 billion a year in local, state and federal taxes.
"Every new American is paying taxes, the unauthorized are paying taxes," and contributing to Social Security and Medicare, Blazar said.
Many immigrants are also business owners and employers in their new communities. In Minnesota, 22,600 immigrants own their own business and employ about 53,200 people. Those businesses bring in about $8.7 billion in sales per year, about 3 percent of Minnesota's economy.
"We depend on people here to start businesses and expand them in our state," Blazar said.
This economic impact is why immigration reform is so important, Blazar said. The last significant change to the country's immigration system was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal for American businesses to hire unauthorized immigrants. It also offered legal status to more than 2 million immigrants who had been in the country illegally. Today there are approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants nationwide, about 25 percent of the total immigrant population. Minnesota has about 83,000 unauthorized immigrants. Most of them overstayed visas and entered through the nation's airports, not the southern or northern borders, Blazar said.
"Every once in awhile you need to reset the system. We may be getting to that point," Blazar said.
The current system isn't working in today's economy, Blazar said. The 1986 deal never foresaw the significant economic growth that would come in the 1990s and the 2000s or the aging native population, which impacts the available workforce.
"Having a functioning immigration policy when your native population isn't growing is key," Blazar said.
When creating a new immigration system, Blazar hopes the federal government learns from past mistakes. He offered four economic-based pieces for a reformed system. He said the administration of the system needs to be streamlined, including a more accurate e-verify system for employers. The application process should also be more orderly and efficient.
The new system should also be more responsive to economic changes. This could mean adjusting the number of immigrants allowed in depending on the health of the economy, as well as offering more visas for skilled workers, while still allowing for immigrants to bring over their families.
"We can move entirely away from the quota system," Brazer said.
There should also be a path toward earned or permanent status for those in the country unauthorized, like the amnesty offered in the 1986 bill.
"It is starting over. It is not terrible to admit something doesn't work and start over," Blazar said.
A reformed system will need to address border and point of entry security.
"But, I have a feeling that if we had a functioning, efficient immigration system, the borders would be more secure just by doing that," Blazar said.
While reforming the immigration system is the responsibility of the federal government, Blazar said there are things Minnesota could do now. One is updating the state's licensure requirements to accept foreign credentials for certain careers. Blazar said he once spoke with a cab driver at an airport, who had been a pediatrician in his native country of Somalia.
"We have a lot of talented people walking around doing work totally unrelated to what they were trained to do," Blazar said.
Local communities can also help, by inviting federal lawmakers to town, to show them the importance of immigration and the need for a reformed system.
"I think a lot of politicians are having entirely too much fun making this a political football," Blazar said. "The stakes are too high for that."
Also, welcoming new arrivals warmly is important, as it makes the transition easier.
"The Minnesota communities, like Willmar, that are welcoming to immigrants and figure out ways to welcome those folks and make them part of the community, that becomes a real economic advantage," Blazar said.
Change is hard, Blazar admits, whether it is reforming the immigration system or bringing in new people to a community, but it is necessary if you want the economy to continue to prosper.
"That is the only way to create growth, which is what makes our communities work," Blazar said. "I think it is a pretty bright future for us all."