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Congress Must Step Up on Immigration Reform | Commentary

On again. Off again. So goes the debate with immigration reform. With mid-term elections just nine months away, our leaders appear poised to backpedal to a time honored tradition of kicking the can down the road. Inaction is always the easy way out, especially when there are major political dynamics and important voting blocs in play. Unfortunately, for businesses trying to keep their doors open we can’t also just put the economy “on hold” until after the election when tough votes on important policy is more convenient. We are eager to do our part to grow, prosper and create jobs—but the continued inaction on immigration reform impedes us from making those dreams a reality.

The economic case for immigration reform is simple. The right mix of policies will ensure a reliable and much needed labor pool for future job creation. That’s a stark contrast to the current immigration system, which is outdated, ill functioning, and wholly inadequate to deal with the needs of U.S. business competing in a global economy. In short, it does more to hinder business growth than foster it.

The Senate passed a comprehensive bill in June that, while not perfect, forced the House to get serious about reform. Since the House received the Senate bill however, it has only collected dust. America needs the House of Representatives to thoughtfully construct legislation, be it comprehensive or through individual pieces of legislation that will cut through partisanship and serve the best interests of the American people and economy. As they do, they should consider exactly how the bill’s component parts would boost the economy and create American jobs.

The most important provision — and the most controversial one — is to provide a path towards earned legal status for many currently undocumented people so we can get them contributing to the United States economy.

Companies like ours know just how important this is. As it stands, restaurants are the country’s leading employer of entry-level employees. We’re the gateway for economic integration — a stepping stone to higher-paying jobs both in our own industry as well as others.

Our industry’s economic impact is evident for all to see. Nationwide, we expect to exceed $660 billion in sales this year. That would account for 4 percent of the country’s domestic product, spread out across the million-strong restaurants across the country.

We’re also expecting to add over a million jobs over the next decade alone — bringing us to almost 14 and a half million employees. It would be a crime for us to force immigrants to miss out on the opportunities that will accompany this growth.

Naturally, any legalization measure should be coupled with better enforcement policies. That’s why we support the Legal Workforce Act that was passed by the House Judiciary Committee, which establishes one federal E-Verify system, instead of today’s existing patchwork of inconsistent state and local rules that are unworkable for multi-state employers and their prospective employees. Uniformity is key to an industry of 960,000 restaurant and food service outlets comprised mostly of small businesses that employ nearly 13 million people.

E-Verify is a simple and standardized program that lets businesses check the status of job applicants. This will ensure that employers know the immigration status of job applicants and that those employers who willingly hire undocumented workers will be held accountable. It would let businesses act in good faith and streamline their hiring processes — an important area for cost savings in an era of mounting regulations.

Our international competitiveness is an important issue for the House to consider. The countries we compete with in the global marketplace are quickly modernizing their immigration laws. Meanwhile, we flounder in a toxic mix of partisan bickering and attempts to score cheap political points for electoral gain, unable to affect necessary change to our immigration system.

For the visionary countries that have updated their immigration systems, they have added a valuable tool that they can use to compete against us: The ability to attract the world’s best and brightest. This is an advantage that used to be almost exclusively ours. Now, we are losing our edge.

This should weigh heavily on Congress’ collective conscience. Immigration reform touches almost every aspect of our country’s greatness; from economic growth to our national spirit of kindness to our continued ability to lead the world. It would be a shame for us to simply let this issue sit idle on the sidelines until it’s more politically convenient.

Joe Essa is the President of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide.

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