Raleigh, N.C. — Representatives from the construction, hospitality, farming and seafood industries sat down with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis in Raleigh on Monday to share their concerns about possible immigration reform.
Tillis has been hosting a series of roundtable discussions with New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors working toward comprehensive immigration reform, to get different perspectives as Congress once again tries to tackle U.S. immigration policies, which have proved nettlesome for decades.
"What we’re really trying to do is connect to the individual impact, the impact on employers. I think it's really trying to make this real," the North Carolina Republican said.
Richard Gephart said many of the workers at Gephart Building Company are undocumented, but his business couldn't survive without them.
"They build our houses. They pave our roads," Gephart said.
The self-described political conservative said he can't get on board with the Trump administration's immigration plans, noting chants of "build the wall" and "ship them out" make him sick with worry for his workers.
"I have one [worker] who is raising three wonderful girls, all on the honor roll, all born here legally," Gephart said. "The father was not born here legally, and he really worries about driving home every night that he's going to be picked up and sent back."
Business leaders said the red tape required for visas for immigrant labor is often too overwhelming and too expensive. Like Gephart, others expressed concern that stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws will hurt their companies.
"There is a great nervousness not only on the part of the farm workers but the employers as well because these people are vital to the success of these farms and businesses," said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.
Tillis said his efforts to hammer out a compromise in Washington, D.C., will include solutions, such as pairing tighter border security with a revamped work visa program, that make many in the industries that rely on immigrant labor nervous.
"We’re going to propose things that push people out of their comfort zones, but it's absolutely necessary to get those votes in the middle that I think exist," he said. "Until we start coming up with these policies that are balanced, that address the legitimate concerns from either side of the aisle, then we're going to be at the same place 40 years from now if we don't have somebody step up and be willing to take the kinds of political hits in the interim work products that are necessary for you to get something done."
Many in the room said they didn't expect to agree with Tillis, but they left feeling surprisingly satisfied.
"I think I was encouraged," said Jennifer Dionne of the American Seafood Jobs Alliance. "The fact that Sen. Tillis is willing to look at pairing certain issues together and taking this at bite-size chunks and not trying to fix all of it at once is probably the only way we're going to get this done."