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Counting on new workers as immigration debate brews

In the hallways of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and on the farms of Niagara County, Washington’s brewing debate about immigration reform isn’t about “amnesty,” or about the fear that someone from far away will come to America to do us harm.

It’s about jobs – and creating more of them.

“I can personally relate to this issue,” said Yakov Kogan, who came to the United States in 1996 and now serves as CEO of Cleveland BioLabs in Buffalo. “If we get this bill, we will be able to attract the best and the brightest, the best educated, and they will be ready to go and start doing research the next day. It will fulfill a need and allow the U.S. to be much more competitive.”

While Cleveland BioLabs faces a shortage of U.S.-born researchers, Oscar Vizcarra, a Peruvian immigrant who owns Becker Farms and Vizcarra Winery in Gasport, faces a farm worker shortage that, he said, the immigration bill will correct.

“With this bill, I can plan for future expansion,” Vizcarra said.

The immigrants who head Cleveland BioLabs and Becker Farms say federal legislation is needed to fix a broken American immigration system that makes it too difficult for strivers from overseas to come here to do jobs that Americans seem to not want to do.

Getting an immigration bill passed, though, will be a heavy lift in a deeply divided Congress that’s newly shaken by the actions of two immigrants who are very different from Kogan and Vizcarra: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Even as police continued the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, warned that the tragedy in Boston would and should influence the immigration debate.

“While we don’t yet know the immigration status of the people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system,” Grassley said at a Senate hearing. “How can individuals evade authorities and plan such attacks on our soil? How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the U.S.? How do we ensure that people who wish to do us harm are not eligible for benefits under the immigration laws, including this new bill before us?”

One of the lead authors of the immigration bill, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, quickly noted that the nation would actually be safer if its 11 million undocumented immigrants were able to come out of the shadows, as they could under the immigration bill.

“In general, we’re a safer country when law enforcement knows who was here; has their fingerprints, photos, et cetera; has conducted background checks and no longer looks – needs to look – at needles through haystacks,” said Schumer, D-N.Y. “In addition, both the refugee program and the asylum program have been significantly strengthened in the past five years such that we are much more careful about screening people and determining who should and should not be coming into the country.”

The Boston bombing is just one of the stumbling blocks in the way of the bill, which sets out a difficult 13½-year path, laced with $2,000 in fines and an English-language requirement, that could eventually lead to citizenship for undocumented aliens.

Critics of the bill call that amnesty – a free pass for people who broke the law.

“This legislation is all about satisfying the demands of illegal aliens and their advocates for amnesty and providing business interests access to low-wage foreign labor,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration group.

But labor is just what Buffalo’s high-tech firms and lower-tech farms are clamoring for.

Educated immigrants

Born in Russia and raised in the American way of innovation, Kogan brought Cleveland BioLabs to Buffalo in 2007. At the time, it had 25 employees, but now it has 85 – and that could be just the start, he said, if the federal government lifts its strict limits on how many highly educated immigrants can settle in the U.S.

The current H1-B visa program for skilled workers offers “no flexibility” and handcuffs employers from hiring some of the best researchers, Kogan said. For example, because of the current cap on such visas, one highly skilled, would-be Cleveland BioLabs worker had to endure “another year of waiting” before coming to the United States.

Under the immigration bill, though, that cap would go from 65,000 visas per year for highly skilled workers today to at least 110,000, and possibly up to 180,000 if the demand for such workers is great enough.

Allowing more highly skilled workers into the country “is a very serious issue” at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, said Matt Enstice, its president and CEO.

And it’s a serious issue, too, for Moog Inc., the aerospace company based in East Aurora, said Richard A. Aubrecht, the company’s vice chairman.

“We’re bringing people from our facilities all over the world to our headquarters to understand the Moog culture” and other aspects of the company, Aubrecht said. “As a global business, it’s absolutely critical. We just have to do it to compete. Yet we experience severe delays” in getting visas for such workers.

Beyond that, Aubrecht said that the highly skilled workers that America now shuts out could be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.

“It makes no sense,” he said, adding that if skilled engineers and researchers can’t start companies here, “they’ll do it someplace else.”

The critics’ opinion

Still, the idea of allowing more highly skilled immigrants into the country has its critics. While employers say they can’t find enough qualified Americans in the “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and math – fields, a recent study completed by the liberal Economic Policy Institute found “more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.”

“Even in engineering, U.S. colleges have historically produced about 50 percent more graduates than are hired into engineering jobs each year,” the study found.

There’s less dispute over the fact that the nation doesn’t have enough farm workers. About 70 percent of the nation’s farm workers are immigrants – but the current visa program for farm workers only supplies 2 to 3 percent of the needed workforce, according to the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, which is pushing for a more open door for farm workers.

Farm labor shortage

It’s a problem that resonates on the farms of Western New York, said Vizcarra, who estimated that 50 to 60 percent of farm workers now are undocumented immigrants – who sometimes get carted off by immigration officials, leaving farmers without the workers they need.

To fix that problem, the immigration bill streamlines the agricultural guest worker program to make it easier for farmers to hire workers year-round. That is especially important to the state’s dairy farmers, Schumer said. It also creates an expedited path to citizenship for longtime farm workers.

“This is a big win for farmers and the New York economy,” Vizcarra said. “It means farm workers can get out of the shadows and become productive citizens and taxpayers.”

Dean Norton, president of the New York Farm Bureau, agreed.

The farm labor shortage in Western New York is so acute, he said, that he knows one farmer who has decided against growing cabbage this year, just because he could not find anyone to hire to pick it.

“For years, family farms have faced difficulties finding legal labor that is absolutely necessary to plant spring crops, milk the cows, and harvest the fruits and vegetables,” Norton said.

That reality runs headlong, though, into the concerns prompted by the 11 million people who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas in recent decades.

‘Can’t just deport’

Local tea party activist Rus Thompson saw some of those immigrants come into the country when he lived in Mexico in the 1980s, and that experience left him with mixed feelings about the immigration bill.

Those illegal immigrants quickly took all the local construction jobs, forcing Thompson to look elsewhere for work.

Given that experience, he said: “The number one thing we have to do is secure the borders.”

But he was also surprised to see that the immigration bill calls for just that: the largest-ever investment in security on the southern border, and a strict set of goals that must be achieved before broader immigration reform can occur.

That being the case, he agreed with the region’s tech employers and farmers that something must be done on the immigration issue.

“You can’t just deport 11 million people,” Thompson said. “These people have been here, they have roots here, they have families, they have kids. But how we’re going to handle it, I don’t know.”