Immigration: The hot button issue

Pat Ricutti is a diehard Republican voter, but he laments what he’s hearing from GOP presidential contenders about illegal immigration.

The Fresno fruit and grape farmer gave money to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani last February at a fundraiser. He said he won’t be giving him or any other candidate a dime more at this point, though, until he starts hearing alternatives to calling for millions of illegal immigrants to be shipped off or pressured to leave voluntarily.

Ricutti may be Republican, but he’s also among tens of thousands of California business owners — farmers and landscapers, hotel and restaurant operators, nursing home managers and home builders — who hire immigrant laborers.

Immigration is a complicated issue, they say, and as balloting in the Feb. 5 state primary approaches many of them are dismayed that all the GOP front-runners — with the exception of Arizona Sen. John McCain — have abandoned moderate, nuanced stances.

In the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire and in televised ads and debates, candidates have made toughness against illegal immigrants centerpieces of their campaigns. They’ve declared they won’t support “amnesty” for any illegal immigrants, or allow them to stay to earn legal residency.

Business trade groups with many GOP-leaning members and U.S. labor unions support giving a chance to long-working illegal immigrants to try to earn legal residency. Businesses are also calling for a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration rules so, as enforcement increases, they can be positive they’re hiring legal immigrants and also sure there won’t be labor shortages.

After a long stalemate in Congress over immigration reform, they say they don’t want their next president to stick to uncompromising positions they believe are foolhardy.

In a Nov. 29 CNN-YouTube debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney rejected allowing undocumented workers a chance to stay and earn residency. He tried to soften his position by implying that illegal immigrants would be welcomed back if they went home and applied to return, out of fairness, just like others who are waiting in line to immigrate legally.

One of the problems with Romney’s idea, as some employers know from first-hand experience, is that most of those same people don’t have a line to get into.

Most immigrants — other than refugees — gain legal entry to the United States because they have a close family member to sponsor them. Hundreds of thousands enter each year via family sponsorship.

But only 5,000 visas a year are available for U.S. businesses to compete for to try to sponsor workers to permanently immigrate to fill nonprofessional labor shortages in industries as diverse as food-processing to convalescent care.

Employers argue that as a result, labor shortages have essentially been filled for years by undocumented workers, who knew they could find jobs if they survived the border crossing and obtained fake documents.

During the same CNN-YouTube debate, Giuliani accused Romney of a “holier than thou” attitude toward illegal immigration and hypocrisy because Romney’s landscaper was employing illegal immigrants.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whom Romney has accused of being soft on illegal immigrants, released a position paper trying to strike a law-and-order position, combined with a dose of compassion. He called on the estimated 12 million undocumented people here to return home within 120 days — a choice that wouldn’t disqualify them from getting in line to apply to return legally.

Ricutto guffawed at this. “I’m all for having them come legally. But let’s create a system to do that,” he said.

“People in this country don’t get it yet,” Ricutto said, adding that other countries realize they need to import nonprofessional workers to perform certain jobs and have designed systems to manage that.

The rift in California’s GOP over immigration has some party faithful arguing that the “no amnesty” stance is what GOP voters want to hear. Placer County GOP Chairman Tom Hudson, a tax attorney and state employee, is among them. While he’s leaning toward Romney, Hudson said he’s bothered that the former governor had “to convert” to his current position.

A survey released this month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California suggests, though, that GOP-sympathetic employers are not a minority in their views on immigration. According to the survey, 72 percent of likely voters in California favor giving undocumented workers a chance to stay here and earn residency. Republicans favor earned residency over deportation 51 percent to 43 percent, with 6 percent saying they aren’t sure.

In July of 2006, the Field Poll, another well-regarded nonpartisan opinion survey group, found that 63 percent of California Republicans favored comprehensive immigration reform that includes border security, guest worker programs and paths to legal residency.

Last February, at the same private Giuliani fundraiser in Fresno that Ricutti attended, another farmer, Manuel Cuhna, was thrilled when he was able to ask the man he thought would be his candidate the first question of the event. It was about businesses’ urgent need for immigration change that guarantees access to a legal labor force.

“He told me flat out, in front of everybody, ‘I understand and support comprehensive immigration reform,’ ” Cuhna said. But at another fundraiser in June, Giuliani gave the exact opposite answer, said Cuhna, who is about to give up on Republicans and support Hillary Clinton as the only person “who really has a handle on this.”.

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