Immigration issues shape workplace

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Published: March 13,2006

Immigration issues grow more and more important in Mississippi with an increasing number of Hispanics making the state’s workforce more diverse. This trend is expected to continue, especially on the Gulf Coast where rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina is beginning.

The issues surrounding both legal and illegal immigrants are varied and complex. For instance, there are about 30 different visas for immigrants wanting to work here legally. Business people who’re hiring immigrants are advised to seek professional help.

Flo Hardigree works with Dawson International, a Mendenhall-based immigration consulting company that works all over the country processing paperwork for businesses that want to employ immigrants.

“It must be done right and in a certain order,” she says. “Getting everything lined up and where you send it depends on the kind of visa it is. We mainly do employment visas and the majority are for temporary workers.”

To employ these temporary workers, the employer must establish a temporary need for the work — construction, tree planting, farm work, seafood processing, etc. — must use the prevailing wage of the area, and confirm that American workers do not want these jobs. The employer must first of all be a U.S. employer registered with the state and provide workers’ compensation.

Hardigree thinks the need for temporary workers will increase, noting that most Americans interviewed refuse the jobs or work a few days and quit. “The temporary immigrant workers are not taking jobs from Americans,” she said. “Not at all.”

Hispanics are becoming more and more an integral part of the construction workforce, according to Buddy Edens, president of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors. “Our labor force was in critical supply before Katrina and the hurricane compounded that by about 1,000%,” he said. “We want them to register and if they are, we have no problem with them working. The immigrants are responsible for registering and showing that documentation to contractors.”

Edens believes that the number of Hispanic immigrants in the construction workforce on the Coast is growing. “Our contractors find them hard workers with a strong work ethic, family oriented and for the most part are no problem,” he added.

Ann Bowden-Hollis, a Gulfport attorney with the Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens and Cannada Law Firm, also sees Hispanic workers as an ever increasing trend and cites census numbers in support.

“Hispanics are increasing in states where it has not been traditional for them to be. That’s certainly the case on the Coast,” she said. “From a legal standpoint, we’re always concerned that individuals are appropriately in this county. Employers have to be careful and be aware.”

Todd Photopulos, with the Butler Snow’s Memphis office, recently spoke on employing temporary workers at the Mississippi Manufacturers Association’s annual meeting in Jackson. He says the business people were particularly interested in specialty occupation visas for degreed positions, labor visas to address labor shortages post-Katrina and compliance issues.

“A temporary labor program may help Mississippi employers in hurricane-affected areas facing the dual challenges of needing additional workers for recovery efforts and a reduction in the normal workforce,” he said. “But, they need to act quickly to take advantage of the H-2B temporary foreign labor visa program.”

He added that the limited program was created to help employers fill a temporary need for labor in situations such as those currently facing the Coast. “Sixty-six thousand temporary work visas are issued each year with the visas released in batches of 33,000 each on October 1 and April 1,” he explained. “Last October’s allotment was filled by mid-December so employers should act quickly if they want to recruit temporary workers using the April batch of visas.”

Jane Smith with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security points out that temporary workers on the H-2B visa and those on an H-2A can be in the U.S. for less than a year. The H-2A visa is for agricultural workers and the employer is required to furnish housing, food and transportation along with a prevailing wage.

“We put the job form through the system and the employer is responsible for putting an ad in the newspaper that must run three consecutive days while the job order is in place,” she said. “The whole point is to try to give American workers a chance to work.”

But State Auditor Phil Bryant is concerned about illegal immigrants working in Mississippi. He estimates their number to be 49,000 and their annual cost to state taxpayers to be $69 million even though they contribute by paying sales and income taxes. He filed a report on this matter with state leaders last month.

“From the state auditor’s standpoint, we look at expenditures and efficiencies in government,” he said. “Other states are doing similar studies. We had very little information about this cost, what we’re doing and how we’re preparing for this number to increase.”

Bryant says the state is ill-prepared and has no way of capturing the number of illegal immigrants here. Depending on the source, the number ranges from 8,000 to 90,000. Each state department has the authority to determine the number receiving its services illegally and give an accounting. He notes it is hard to determine the costs without knowing the numbers, and he predicts the numbers are going to increase.

A state Senate bill that would have protected the state against contractors using illegal workers died in the House of Representatives.

“If we’re going to use that labor, we must do it fairly and legally,” Bryant says. “We’ve got to deal with this issue and the first step is to identify the costs.”

He has no problem with legal temporary workers who come here trying to have a better life and recognizes the important role they play.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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