Immigration was clearly the chief preoccupation of our group of small business people. But if the emotional debate over America's newest arrivals often hints at cultural resentments -- they speak another language; they have a different skin color -- none of that rancor was present in our conversation. Most of the panelists who spoke welcomed immigrants, and recognized that they filled jobs that would otherwise remain vacant. Indeed, two of our entrepreneurs in fact employ legal immigrants. And the greater Des Moines area faces a shortage of 60,000 workers over the next six years, according to the Des Moines Partnership, the area's economic and community development organization (which kindly helped Inc.com arrange this forum).
The biggest concern our panelists had was not that they were immigrants, but that they were illegal. "My grandfather's father emigrated from Denmark, and he came through Ellis Island and did everything legally," said businessman Wayne Hansen. "I think most people are not opposed to immigrants being here. It has to do with how they got here." Still, there was no agreement over what do with those already here. And even if our entrepreneurs welcomed immigrants as workers, it wasn't clear that they would welcome the newcomers as citizens.
What follows is based on a discussion held over lunch in the boardroom of the Des Moines Partnership on Monday, November 26, 2007. Inc.com's Robb Mandelbaum served as moderator and baked the chocolate chip cookies.
STEVE BOERS is owner and president of T3 Technologies, Inc., a design-build electrical contractor. The firm employs 18 people and is based in Des Moines.
ADAM CARROLL speaks professionally to students about financial literacy and is owner and Chief Education Officer of Four Legacies Mortgage. The West Des Moines firm employs three people.
ROWENA CROSBIE is owner and president of Tero International, Inc., a corporate training firm, and Tero Seed Company, which grows traditional crops, wild flowers, and exotic prairie grasses. The firms employ 12 people and are based in Des Moines.
HANK EVANS owns A.F. Johnson Millwork Company, which manufactures commercial fixtures and furnishings, and residential remodeler Midwest Kitchens. The two firms employ 25 people and are headquartered in West Des Moines.
WAYNE HANSEN is owner and president of Control Installations of Iowa, Inc., a building systems integrator. The firm has 84 employees in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Kansas City.
JOSH MORE is a part owner of Alliance Technologies, which bills itself as the largest full-service information technology firm in Iowa. The company employs 100 people in Des Moines.
ROBB SPEARMAN is a broker and the owner of ReMax Real Estate Concepts, which employs 65 agents and ten staffers in five offices throughout Des Moines.
By the way, Inc.com has not verified the statements our panelists made in this discussion. You'll just have to trust them, or not.
INC.COM: Rowena, you emigrated from Canada in 1993 -- why don't we start with you. Why is the issue of immigration so important to you?
ROWENA CROSBIE: I took my citizenship about a year ago, so I know what that process looks like. I also know that I'm not welcomed into this country because of what I can contribute economically, although I am employing a lot of Americans, and actually a couple of foreigners, too. I am welcomed into this country because of my marital status. That was the only way I could get status here. Otherwise, I would've been deported in 1996.
At my firm, we not only travel internationally, we teach people to work cross-culturally, and trying to employ people who have that experience is really hard unless they're American citizens. In fact, we're sending one back to Thailand in December because we can't employ her -- she's got a student visa that will expire next month.
HANK EVANS: The whole illegal immigration system at the moment is just a feakin' mess. And unfortunately, Congress does not have the intestinal fortitude to deal with it. I was employing someone I thought was legal about a year ago, a very talented cabinet-maker, a Mexican guy who didn't weigh but about 120 pounds. As two six-foot four, 250 pound immigration guys came in and picked him up off his feet and carried him out of my plant, he looked around and he said, 'Mr. Evans, if I come back with another name, you'll hire me back?' I fully expect to see Sammy show up one of these days with a different name.
JOSH MORE: We as a nation need more immigrants coming in. I question, though, the judgment of legalizing with a stroke of the pen everybody who is here, because that's basically saying that we as a nation will turn a blind eye to our own laws.
WAYNE HANSEN: Not amnesty, no. We tried amnesty before, when Reagan was in office, and all it did was encourage more to come. We need something so that when Ro comes across the border, she's got a legitimate way to become a citizen if she comes in with a visa, and not be tied up for ten years if everything is legitimate. But we've got all these people who got here illegally and now we're saying, "Oh, it's OK." And that's not OK.
ROBB SPEARMAN: I have a very different viewpoint on this. This is probably why I'll probably leave the Republican Party and vote Democrat. There are a lot of illegals here -- we probably all know some, but just never knew that they were illegals. The only way to start a clean slate is by giving amnesty to all of them, and then rewrite the immigration laws and secure the borders. Because you can't hunt millions of people down and ship them back. And if it was a different group of people that was here, it might be looked upon differently.
And anyway, whose fault is it that all these illegals have come here over the last 10 or 15 years? It's the government's fault. They've dropped the ball.
JOSH MORE: Why is it the government's fault? Let me ask you this: if a large store like WalMart had lax security and they had highly valuable things like TVs and DVD players sitting next to the door, is it their fault if people come in, steal it, and leave? Our government is not asking people to come illegally. It's not their fault. They chose to come in.
ROBB SPEARMAN: There's a demand for that labor force here. If there's no demand for them, if there's no jobs, they wouldn't come here.
WAYNE HANSEN: We didn't make the mistake, they made the mistake. I think the only mistake the government's made is in not putting together a process that would allow swift delivery of the citizenship. That's a terrible mess.
But I'm not saying we should force them back. In my mind, one of the easiest ways to straighten this out in a hurry would be that every who's here illegally all of the sudden said we're going home until you get it straightened out. I tell you what, they'd straighten out in a hurry how they're going to make people legal. It would cause huge chaos.
ROWENA CROSBIE: If amnesty means a path to citizenship, I don't agree with it.
ROBB SPEARMAN: When I say amnesty, I don't mean citizenship. I mean visa of some type.
Tomorrow: the immigration discussion concludes.