Where are the workers?

By 2010, the National Restaurant Association predicts, there will be an estimated 1.7 million new jobs in the restaurant industry—and nowhere near enough U.S. workers to fill them.

For years now, the industry has cast hopeful eyes south of the border, waiting for the relaxation of immigration regulation to open the floodgates and fill all the posts with willing and hardworking migrants. Early last September, pictures of President Bush shaking hands with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Washington had many a restaurateur getting his hopes up.

But then Sept. 11 happened, and suddenly the idea of letting more foreigners into America was not something most people wanted to talk about. The industry is still pinning great hopes on immigration reform, but two Capitol Hill figures have emerged whose politics may guarantee it'll never happen.

Quick: Are the foes Democrats or Republicans? Try both.

Democratic West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd was first to sock the industry in the gut this spring when he blocked passage of a border-security bill because it included a provision that would have allowed eligible immigrants to apply for legal residency without leaving the country—avoiding an expensive and onerous process that could mean the permanent loss of some workers. The provision had to be yanked before the bill passed the Senate. ("He was opposed on the grounds that it can open a lot of loopholes for illegal immigrants to stay here under the radar," explains Byrd's press secretary.)

But that position is cold comfort to restaurants who desperately need workers. "He's not someone who's a proponent of ours on immigration reform," is how the NRA's legislative representative Brendan Flanagan puts it. "But he has not traditionally been a hurdle."

Nonetheless, he was one. Byrd's press secretary says that the senator "has a lot of concerns about illegal immigration." And Byrd may well continue to block reform efforts.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the rotunda, one congressman with a standing history of opposing the loosening of immigration rules has recently made it his mission to knock it off the table for good. Colorado Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo "has made opposition to any additional immigration reform his No. 1 mission," says Flanagan. At a time when publicly criticizing the President is widely considered taboo, Tancredo has already taken to the airwaves to declare what he calls President Bush's "open-border" policy a direct threat to national security.

On his web site, Tancredo rails against all who would allow easier immigration, referring to them as the "open-borders crowd," and criticizes employers—such as restaurants—who would benefit from reform: "Some business interests have sought to weaken borders to increase their access to cheap labor and facilitate the movement of their personnel." If he had his way, Tancredo would create a National Border Security Agency, eliminate all immigrant amnesty, and even deploy troops along the U.S.-Mexico border to halt all illegal immigration. Says Flanagan: "His idea is not allowing anyone foreign in the country at all on a permanent basis."

How does Tancredo respond? He couldn't be reached for comment, and his press secretary would only say that "Tancredo promotes coming to this country through applying for legal status from the country of origin."

The caucus of lawmakers Tancredo has massed over this issue has nearly quadrupled in size since last September, and the more attention Tancredo gets the more the industry worries.

"We're really trying to find middle ground with him on this issue," says Pete Meersman, president of the restaurant association in Tancredo's home state of Colorado. "It is important to have the essential workers we need to fill the jobs we have open."


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