Some of Georgia's largest companies have taken different approaches on the immigration issue.
In an opinion article in USA Today in February, Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's chairman and CEO, wrote in favor of "strong border controls, greater opportunities for skilled foreign-born professionals and a clear way forward for undocumented workers -- a potential route to U.S. citizenship that bears all the rights, responsibilities and obligations of that coveted status."
In contrast, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based UPS said her company supports "immigration reform" but is "not actively out there lobbying for it." Home Depot, also headquartered in Atlanta, has not taken a position.
Farm leaders have been particularly vocal, saying a major part of the state's economy is at stake. They want legislation making it easier for the state's $71.1 billion agricultural industry -- Georgia's largest -- to hire foreign guest workers. Georgia farmers say they rely heavily on migrant Hispanic laborers because many Americans won't do physically taxing work in the fields.
In June, two dozen groups representing Georgia's agricultural industry sent a letter to Chambliss and Isakson endorsing the Senate immigration bill. Last month, many who work in that industry visited Capitol Hill, pushing for a better guest-worker program.
Jerry Lee is among those calling for changes. He is the general manager of Monrovia Nursery, which grows shrubbery, trees and vines on about 500 acres in South Georgia. The nursery employs about 240 workers there and sells to garden centers in Georgia and across the nation.
Lee worries his company would not be able to find additional workers if they are needed, so he has been urging Georgia congressmen in recent weeks to fix the immigration system. He wants something better than the current H-2A guest-worker program. Many Georgia employers complain it is too costly and full of red tape.
"I would hate to say, 'Yes, the business is there. Yes, the capital is there. And the only reason we can't do this is because we don't have people to actually do the work,' " he said.
Tad Mitchell, of the family-owned Six Feet Under Pub & Fish House restaurants in Atlanta, has made two trips to Capitol Hill this year. The message he gave congressional staffers: Immigration helps support the economy by providing a reliable workforce. Mitchell said most of his kitchen workers are immigrants.
"For every one kitchen job we have we provide four front-of-the-house jobs," he said. "There is still a lot of pent-up worry about where all this is going -- and will we be able to effectively staff the kitchens?"
Georgia's high-tech industry has also jumped into the debate, calling on Congress to lift the annual cap it has set on visas for highly-skilled workers. In March, the Technology Association of Georgia traveled with a group of business executives to make their case on Capitol Hill.
Critics of the Senate bill dispute that the nation has a shortage of workers.
"Why must we keep hiring foreign students at the expense of our own -- especially when U.S. unemployment and underemployment are at record levels?" said Phil Kent, a member of Georgia's Immigration Enforcement Review Board and the spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control. "Foreign-worker programs are like giving employers crack cocaine and they've become addicted."
Georgia congressmen confirmed they have gotten an earful from Georgia businessmen.
"They don't want to waste this opportunity to solve, again, things we all agree on and know need to be fixed," said U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Lawrenceville Republican who represents an immigrant-heavy suburban district and is against creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "Our step-by-step approach is going to give them that opportunity. I don't hear the business community clambering to shove the Senate bill down America's throat."
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, represents a largely rural South Georgia district and is on the Agriculture Committee. Scott said a bill in the House Judiciary Committee to overhaul the H-2A guest-worker program "does a good job." Agricultural interests, he added, agree to a degree. "They're accepting of it," Scott said. "They certainly think it's better than what we have right now."
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