Do people care about immigration reform?

– UF survey finds ambivalence and lack of knowledge on immigration issues –

Immigration ranked ninth out of 10 key Florida issues in terms of importance in a recently released study by the University of Florida’s Center for Public Issues Education. The PIE Center survey examined attitudes, opinions and knowledge of 503 Florida residents about undocumented workers and immigration in Florida and the United States.When asked to indicate how important they considered 10 Florida issues, the economy placed first, followed by health care, water, public education, taxes, environmental conservation, food production, housing and foreclosures, immigration and climate change.Add to that the fact that research shows agriculture only uses one out of every seven unauthorized workers, and it sounds like immigration reform with a workable agricultural guest-worker program should be a slam dunk.It’s not.First, people think agriculture employs more unauthorized workers than it actually does. When asked to rank which industry has the most unauthorized employees, survey respondents said they believed most undocumented immigrants worked in outdoor labor (49 percent), agriculture (35 percent), hospitality (6 percent), indoor labor (3 percent), trade contractors (3 percent), warehousing (2 percent), amusement (1 percent) and others (2 percent).According to a 2005 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, service or hospitality occupations employed 31 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States, whereas farm labor and construction occupations accounted for 23 percent of the undocumented immigrants.

The PIE Center study also found other misconceptions exist that hamper immigration reform efforts: specifically, that foreign workers take American jobs and that they steal benefits to which they are not entitled.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. told participants at a recent webinar that survey participants feel immigration issues are all about a sense of fairness.

Craig Regelbrugge is senior vice-president of AmericanHort and co-chairs the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform. He told participants at a recent webinar reviewing the survey findings that it’s all about a sense of fairness.

“I think the anti-immigration forces have created a narrative that these people aren’t like us and all they want to do is come and steal what is ours,” he said. “In reality, someone who does not have proper immigration status would have limited eligibility – if any at all – for most public benefits other than public school education and medical care.”

Moreover, Regelbrugge pointed out the offsets to those costs. “Most workers are employed on the books. They’re having payroll taxes – Social Security, Medicare – taken out of their paychecks and they’re not eligible to receive those benefits,” he said.  “So, at the end of the day, the costs and benefits are about a wash. And when you add in the economic activity that these people enable, it’s a net positive for our economy.”

More information can be found on the Agriculture Workforce Coalition website, including facts and talking points about agriculture’s workforce needs and immigration reform.

Respondents to the PIE Center survey were evenly split on whether unauthorized workers compete for U.S. jobs.

“To me, that says we have a job to do as far as educating the public,” Regelbrugge said. “Our view is that if we have labor solutions on the farm, it enables us to produce things that bring money and resources into the local communities and generate non-farm jobs. If all that activity goes offshore, we lose those jobs. The presence of this workforce here is enabling economic activity. But the public doesn’t completely perceive it that way.”

Other key findings in the survey included:

• Forty-three percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that children of undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend college in their home state at in-state tuition rates. However, 49 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that children of undocumented immigrants should be eligible to receive federal education grant funding.

• Only 60 percent of respondents knew that children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants were U.S. citizens.

• Fifty-five percent reported they had “no confidence” in their national political leaders to do what they think is right regarding the issue of immigration.

• When given three choices on what the government should do regarding undocumented immigration, 46 percent felt undocumented immigrants should be required to leave but be allowed to return later, while 43 percent felt undocumented immigrants should be allowed to remain and become citizens.

• Only 28 percent of respondents to the survey knew what E-Verify is, and 77 percent were unsure whether Florida had implemented E-Verify. (E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. More here.) When told of potential challenges for agriculture if E-Verify is implemented, respondents were unimpressed. Sixty-two percent agreed or strongly agreed Florida should still require agricultural producers to use E-Verify.

What happens next?

“The good news is we have the broadest, strongest coalition pushing for immigration reform that we’ve ever seen,” said Regelbrugge. “I’d call it a center-right coalition made up of ag, business and faith-based groups such as Southern Baptists who see it as a moral issue. We see it as an economic issue.”

However, Regelbrugge sees immigration reform as a challenge because there is no “hard backstop.”

“There is nothing that requires Congress to act. It’s not like a budget or something that triggers a government shutdown. It’s one of those things where they say it’s easier to kick the can down the road and we’ll get to it later. There is a narrow window for action right now in our view,” he said.

Access the full report, “Public Opinions of Immigration in Florida,” here.

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