MN Chamber of Commerce takes immigration message on the road


The U.S. Congress has its hands full with foreign affairs and an obstinate recession, so passing comprehensive immigration reform isn’t at the top of its to-do list.  But, said Bill Blazar, senior vice president for public affairs and business at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, immigration should be closer to the top of the list than it is. The Chamber of Commerce backs comprehensive immigration reform, and will be ready to lobby in Washington when national legislation finally does roll back around, Blazar told the Immigrant Roundtable at the International Institute of Minnesota on March 11.

Blazar has helped develop the Chamber’s policy stance on comprehensive immigration reform. The Chamber supports federal reform, if it means secure border security, making an administratively workable immigration system, resolving the status of illegal immigrants who are already here, and dealing with “future flow” (an alliterative way of saying that the work force should reflect the our future economic needs).

“Immigration is sort of out of our traditional space,” Blazar said.

As they venture into that new space, the Chamber has relied on its members and worked with trade organizations in familiar areas like agribusiness, hospitality, dairy, and nursery/landscape.  But the Chamber has also branched out beyond its territory and Blazar even recently teamed up with John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center take his message on the road across the state. Keller and Blazar had sponsorship and organizational support from businesses, immigration activists, faith-based communities and labor unions. 

So, why is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbying for federal immigration reform? First, immigration is a federal issue so it makes sense to focus efforts there. Then there’s the reform part. Blazar has armed himself with charts, graphs, statistics, and anecdotes to explain how immigration is a good thing for Minnesota. Speaking strictly from an economic point of view, Blazar said immigrants contribute to our economy through labor and entrepreneurship. Minnesota also currently needs immigrants to fill jobs in various sectors. And let’s not forget our little demographic problem: Somebody has to fill jobs once the baby boomers retire, and we won’t have enough native-born young Minnesotans to do this over the next 10-20 years.

“Immigrants contribute to all sectors of our society and we need them for our economy to grow,” Blazar said. “You know, when we did a presentation at the Mayo Clinic down in Rochester people talked about the contributions immigrants made there in virtually all types of jobs, and not just low paying, but everything-cleaning, nurses, doctors, janitors.”

One figure stood out among a sea of statistics. The MN Chamber of Commerce recently surveyed its members and found that nearly 90 companies with job openings in the fall of 2009-2010 had difficulty filling those openings, most of which were in manufacturing.

“And if this is at the height of our recession, what does that mean for our state in 10 or 20 years, assuming the economy recovers?” Blazar asked.

A long-term strategy for a long haul

Even many immigrant rights advocates aren’t hopeful that Congress will consider substantive federal immigration reform any time soon. In Minnesota, the possible deportation of immigrant rights leader Mariano Espinoza recently renewed some attention to the precariousness of undocumented immigrants’ situations. Due to political winds, timing, necessity (or all of these), our own legislature is currently focused on fiscal policy and economic recovery. This is the story nationally as well. While every now and then a case pops up to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform, few in Congress see that as a priority.

With immigration on the back burner, it would be easy to assume that efforts have stalled on the ground as well, particularly among the business community. Not so, says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a collection of pro-immigration, state-based business coalitions.

ImmigrationWorks USA helps its members in 25 states educate the public about immigration. Their website reads, “The ultimate goal: to have a grassroots army in place when immigration reform comes up again in Washington – the national business presence that was missing during the last debate.”

Jacoby says that this grassroots army is, if not vocal, certainly active on the ground. She says the MN State Chamber of Commerce is ahead of other Midwestern Chambers when it comes to immigration. Though there may be some pro-immigration business coalitions, none of Minnesota’s neighboring states belong to ImmigrationWorks USA, and Blazar himself was unaware of whether any nearby state chambers of commerce have been working on immigration issues.

“It’s about educating people in their states to say immigration is actually good, and no, it doesn’t take away jobs, it actually creates them,” Jacoby said. “The Minnesota chamber is starting to do a really great job of getting that message out in their state, and not just in the Twin Cities. They’re ahead of the curve, and will therefore be ready when this comes up again.”

They may be slightly ahead of the curve, but Blazar seems almost overwhelmed by the amount of education, organizing and lobbying left to do. Plus, there are the next steps of figuring out just how to go about reforming broken immigration systems.

“Problem is, we still don’t know how,” Blazar said. “We’ve got to put our nose to the grindstone, do focus groups next and things like that, and come up with what a workable system should look like from the perspective of the business community.”

Then he laughed briefly. “Course, that’s always easier said than done.”