Lowcountry business community eyeing immigration reform — or lack of it

As debate over immigration reform continues in Washington, Charleston's business community is making more noise about what's at stake here at home.

The U.S. Senate already has passed an immigration bill with bipartisan support, but it faces an uncertain future in the Republican-led House.

While the debate has been dominated by security along the U.S.-Mexico border and by how the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants should be handled, the private sector is pointing out that there's another bottom line: the future workforce.

Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, is a prominent local backer of the Senate immigration reform bill.

In a recent op-ed published in The Post and Courier and in an interview Thursday, Derreberry pointed to a shortage of high-wage science and technology workers and the demand for low-wage seasonal labor as reasons why the proposed legislative overhaul is needed.

“In many places in our community, there's a need for semi-skilled and skilled labor, and it's just going to exacerbate with baby boomer retirement and the tremendous growth we're having in this region,” he said.

He noted support for reforms extends beyond American borders, citing the Irish ambassador's advocacy during a recent visit to Charleston.

That said, Derreberry is “not surprised” the Senate bill hasn't been embraced by the Republican-led House, noting that body has more than four times as many members as the Senate. But he's “still optimistic” some kind of deal can be reached.

“Our leadership and board was thrilled that the bill cleared the Senate,” he said, calling it a “major step” that put the issue on the “national radar.”

“Now the House of Representatives has a responsibility to look at it as a legitimate piece of legislation,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was among the so-called bipartisan “Group of Eight” that wrote the bill. He said Thursday immigration reform is important to all sectors of South Carolina's economy, from hospitality businesses like hotels to farmers to high-tech businesses, such as Boeing and BMW.

“The consequences to South Carolina's economy are enormous,” he said. “What are the biggest drivers of our economy? Tourism, agriculture and high-tech manufacturing. The agricultural community really did very well in this bill, getting access to labor they don't have today. The high-tech community ... they really did well.”

Kiawah Island Golf Resort hosts more than 100 foreign workers every year, so Roger Warren, the resort's president, has a keen interest in immigration policy and the ongoing effort to tweak it.

“I'm one of those people who thinks there has to be a solution out there and would like to see a solution reached rather than have it stalled,” Warren said.

The high-end barrier island resort, which includes the Sanctuary Hotel, five golf courses, restaurants and hundreds of villas, employs some 1,800 people during peak season. About 150 of those people are Jamaicans and Filipinos working as cooks, servers and housekeepers for seven or eight months at a time on H2B visas, temporary permits for foreigners to do jobs Americans won't do, Warren explained.

“They're all jobs that I have to say, frankly, coming through the unemployment rate that we've had in South Carolina since 2009, I've always been surprised that we didn't get more people who want the jobs,” he said.

While border security and a path to citizenship are the main points of contention in Congress, Warren said any curtailment of H2B visas (or J1 visas, which bring European hotel management graduates to Kiawah for stints longer than a year) would spell trouble for his operation.

“I would have to change the way we run our business here,” he said, specifically less capacity meaning fewer visitors and less revenue, which would affect the American workforce.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., voted against the Senate bill because he felt it didn't do enough to secure the border, but he agreed businesses have a stake in the solution.

“Our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. One component of that is ensuring we have the workforce we need to allow businesses to succeed and grow,” he said in a statement Thursday. “I fully believe we need a workable, efficient system for legal immigrants as we continue to build the most talented workforce in the world.”

Scott called the debate “far from over.”

Warren said he hopes Congress will fix what's broken and leave alone what works.

Given the complex and thorny nature of the problem, some have doubted if a sweeping immigration bill is even possible.

But Warren said that doesn't mean House Republicans should give up trying to improve the current system. He noted he is a Republican himself.

“Most of them are worried about the next election and not what's right for immigration, which I find frustrating,” he said.

Graham said the ramifications of the nation's immigration policy will extend far beyond the 2014 elections.

“In the next 40 years, 80 million baby boomers will retire. Where does that future workforce comes from? How do you replace 80 million leaving the workforce?” he asked. “You need more legal immigration.”



Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 or bkearney@postandcourier.com. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@postandcourier.com.

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