A leading Republican advocate of immigration reform told an American Jewish Committee New Jersey forum the chances of passing a new law this year are 50-50.
“There are many more ways for things to fail in Congress than for them to succeed,” said Tamar Jacoby. “There are 100 people with BB guns waiting there to shoot at it and the path is always tricky.”
Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an organization of 25 businesses and trade associations that employ immigrant workers. She was keynote speaker at an April 4 conference, “How Immigration Reform Powers American Competitiveness,” on the Florham Park campus of Fairleigh-Dickinson University.
Some 65 business and labor leaders, community activists, and AJC members were in attendance. AJC supports comprehensive immigration reform.
Jacoby has been working intensively with the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of United States senators — including Robert Menendez (D-NJ) — who are near agreement on a bill that would set some 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to American citizenship.
She noted that her party’s candidate for president in 2012 — Mitt Romney — received only 27 percent of Latino votes.
“Before the election, there was a small minority in the Republican Party who understood that we needed to get on the right side of this issue,” she said. “But it was like, ‘I know I’m going to die some day.’ It was not a real understanding. Now, everybody gets it. Republicans understand if they are ever going to see the inside of the White House again they are going to have to get this right.”
She said the congressional debate about undocumented immigrants “has changed dramatically.” Many in Congress who once favored deporting such immigrants now support granting them legal status or citizenship.
Jacoby said the Obama administration’s legislative proposals differ slightly from the Senate’s, comparing them to “Coke and Pepsi.”
But in the House, she said, reform legislation has many different forms.
“It’s like you’ve got five different airplanes lined up on this one runway, and the big question is ‘Which one is going to take off?’”
About civil rights
Following her speech, Jacoby told NJ Jewish News her fellow Republicans would have to beat back stiff opposition from the Tea Party and other opponents of immigration reform.
“Republicans won’t ignore those Tea Party people, but a few of their leaders, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), are saying to them, ‘Let’s think about this a little harder,’” Jacoby said. “Republicans are so hungry to get this behind them.”
In a discussion following her 40-minute speech, a panel of five immigration advocates said reform would be of great economic benefit to their employees and constituents.
“Substantial numbers of immigrants and their children are returning to their ancestral homelands for professional and business opportunities,” said moderator Nick Montalto. “To me this raises the question: Will the United States continue to act as a magnet for talent around the world?” Montalto is president of Diversity Dynamics, which advises business and government on immigration issues.
Dominick Mondi, executive director of the NJ Nursery and Landscape Association, said he supports a “functional and timely guest worker program.”
“The low-skilled guest worker aspect of immigration is extremely central to our membership and to the agriculture community,” he said. “Most of my members on the politically right side think it is a way around amnesty that Republicans like to talk about.”
Michael Carroll, executive vice president of Allan Industries, a janitorial service in Rockaway, employs 3,500 people, many of them foreign-born. “We are running out of people…. It is very difficult to obey the rules,” he said
Kevin Brown, NJ state director of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, represents janitors, doormen, and food service workers, many of whom are immigrants.
“Very few of them are criminals,” he said. “They are just good people, and they shouldn’t be penalized. They need a pathway to citizenship.”
Noting that the conference was being held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Brown called immigration reform “an issue about civil rights…. All human beings should be treated equally. We have a two-tiered system in this country today…. We would rather have no bill than a bill that creates two tiers of Americans.”
“This is a matter of civil rights as well as a matter of economics; they are not separated,” said Samia Bahsoun, a global telecommunications expert and a board member of Main Street Alliance, an organization that supports immigration reform in the interest of the nation’s small businesses.
Katherine Kish is executive director of Einstein’s Alley, an organization that promotes high-tech industrial development in New Jersey. She said her organization supports immigration reform because it seeks to nurture talent.
She asserted that in the past two years, immigrants have founded 28 percent of the companies in the United States and 88 percent of the start-up firms in Silicon Valley. In addition, immigrants represent one-quarter of the Americans who have received the Nobel Prize. When discussing immigrants, Kish said, “you are talking about a population that has enormous benefit to this country.”
‘Pathway to Peace’
“A pathway to immigration is also a pathway to peace,” said Samia Bahsoun, a panelist and reform advocate who drew applause from a diverse audience of business people, trade union organizers, and community activists at the AJC forum.
Bahsoun was born in Senegal, has Lebanese-Muslim parents, and lost relatives during Israeli bombing raids on southern Lebanon. She had never met an Israeli face-to-face until she began working at Bell Labs in New Jersey.
“We have a lot of cultural commonalities,” she said. “That is really amazing. The Israelis used to say to me, ‘We have a lot more in common with you than with American Jews.’
“You get to the point where you develop friendship with people, and once you meet ‘the other,’ you change forever. We cannot see it as ‘us against them’ anymore. You see the rise of anti-Semitism and racism and Islamophobia in this country.
“The less you open up your borders, the more ignorant you stay,” she said.
To Bahsoun, supporting immigration reform to win Latino votes “is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Latinos are not the only immigrants. I will be very interested to see how reform is implemented for people who come for other areas of the world, like the Middle East,” she told NJ Jewish News. — ROBERT WIENER