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Why Immigration Reform Is Good for Small Business

An overhaul of U.S. immigration laws will benefit all entrepreneurs--not just foreign-born American-trained engineers looking to start companies.

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One of my clients, Gregory Landscaping, struggles.  The owner of the company (I bet you can guess his name) has been in business for almost two decades.  He pays his people well.  He listens to his customers.  He keeps a good eye on his books.  He delivers a quality service.  But he struggles to make a profit.  Is it the economy?  His prices?  A lack of demand?  Not really.

"It's the illegal immigrants," he complained.  "They're killing me."

This isn't Arizona or Texas.  It's Pennsylvania.  When the weather gets warm, an influx of immigrants arrives in the area.  But Greg has a policy against hiring them.  Not that he has anything against them.  In fact, he knows that many of them are excellent landscapers.  But it's against the law to hire them.  They aren't documented.  He knows most are in the country illegally.  He doesn't want to put his business at risk.

A big part of the small business struggle? Undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately, it's no secret among the landscaping community that some of Greg's competitors don't have the same point of view.  They have no problem hiring undocumented immigrants during the busy season.  And they take advantage.  They pay people like this less than minimum wage.  They don't provide any benefits.  And offer zero security.  When the season ends, they turn them loose without a second thought.  And these workers accept the terms because they have no other choice.  And, in the meantime, Greg's competors, with lower wages and overhead, can undercut him on the landscaping jobs they do, and take work away from him.  It's a struggle.

This is why Greg supports immigration reform.  And, as a small business owner, I do too.

"The time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform," President Obama said in a speech today. "Now's the time, now's the time."

I'm happy to see the progress made in Washington just this past week on immigration reform.  And I like the approach.  I like that a bipartisan group of senators proposed legislation that sets the hurdles at a high but attainable level.  I like that immigrants have an opportunity to become legal but only after going through a specific process and having to pay a fine.  This is a good thing for our country.  This is a good thing for Greg.  And it's a particularly good thing for small businesses in general.  Why?

Immigration reform levels the playing field.

People that illegally hire immigrants will no longer be able to outmaneuver or take advantage of entrepreneurs like Greg.  If the proposed legislation were to go into effect, Greg would be able to recruit better people for his work without worrying about scrutiny from the government.  Like many small businesses, he'll have a much larger pool of legal talent and resources to choose from.

Immigration reform will help reduce crime. 

Ask any business owner running a grocery store in an urban war zone how he or she feels about that.  When you can't get a job because you're undocumented and you have a family to feed you'll be forced to do what you have to do, lawful or not.  Being legal means you can come out of hiding, move away from squalor, and search for work across the country without fear of arrest.  You can create a better life for your family and work for a living, instead of stealing.

It will provide more opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Go ahead.  You try and get an investor's attention, a bank loan, a lease agreement, or a set of incorporation papers when you don't even have a social security number.  It's hard enough even if you're a third-generation Bostonian!  How many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States have great ideas and contributions to make to the economy and yet are unable to because of their legal status?

Are you concerned immigration reform could add to the country's national debt?  Will stressed entitlement systems have to support a whole new group of needy people?  Please.  No one can predict for certain, but I say it will add to national prosperity.  I'll contend that there are right now a few hundred dreamers in that group of 11 million who could potentially contribute billions to the U.S. economy.  It's insulting to think that the population of illegal immigrants, if made legal, will just sit back and be a drain on society.  That's what the Kardashians are for.

Not every immigrant is skilled, of course.  But that's OK too.  Because I read about high levels of unemployment and watch the occupiers protest in city after cit, but see countless "help wanted" signs at fast food restaurants and elsewhere looking for unskilled labor.  These are low-paying jobs.  But they're a start.  Particularly for an immigrant looking to build a life for his or her family.  Making him or her legal will help small business owners and franchisors fill those positions.

Immigration reform will create a workforce of dedicated, disciplined workers. 

Imagine leaving behind your homeland and your family to move to a foreign land where you barely speak the language and have no respect?  Kind of what it's like to be a New Yorker moving to Philly.  But then imagine that you're allowed to join society, hold a job, and say things like "If they don't fire Andy Reid I'm gonna kill someone!"  See?  You made it!  I believe that once this reform is passed, small business owners who hire these people will find them to be willing to go to great lengths to do a great job.  And because the process to become legal is not an easy one, an immigrant who attains naturalization will have proven his or her commitment to the process, and to the country.

And what a country we live in.  With all the talk of China's growth and Russian oil and the opportunities in Latin America, where do people really want to go?  Here.  And it's not just because the U.S. has hundreds of Denny's Restaurants (although that's as good a reason as any).  It's because the U.S. is truly a melting pot where people from any country can live, hate each other with a passion, yet still come together and succeed.  Passing immigration reform validates the U.S. reputation, and role in the world as a safe haven and democratic superpower, and will only serve to attract more human and financial capital in the future.

Will 11 million more legal immigrants compete for American jobs?  Will these immigrants start up new businesses that will compete with mine?  Will they enter and stay in universities and compete with American children?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But that's good.  Competition keeps you on our toes and, longterm, makes you better.  You will have to work harder and be smarter to get the job.  I will have to innovate and watch my back if I'm going to beat that guy who came into my market.  And my kids will have to take a break from playing beer pong and foosball at their fraternities to study just a little more too.  Nothing wrong with that.   Most importantly, relaxing the country's immigration laws will surely entice more talented athletes to move here.  How else can Major League Soccer compete on a world stage?

So thanks to President Obama and all those in Congress, both Republican and Democrat, who are moving immigration reform forward.  It's a great thing for a great many people.  And a great thing for small business owners like Greg too.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jan 29, 2013

GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.
@genemarks




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