Business, labor agreement sets immigration reform in motion

Aslam Khan lost more than $1 million trying to do the “right” thing.

The Church’s Chicken franchise owner voluntarily implemented e-verification — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s online system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. — and in doing so let go 80 workers. In turn, he said, the labor loss cost him about $10,000 at each of his restaurants.

With more than 100 franchises , that’s a large hit.

As CEO of Falcon Holdings, Khan is the largest franchisee of Church’s Chicken and easily employs more than 10,000 people in the U.S. While he struggles to maintain his workforce and comply with federal and state laws, the federal government is working on an immigration overhaul that could dramatically affect the franchising world.

Late last week, big business and big labor settled on a political framework for immigration reform that would allow about 10,000 low-skilled workers into the country and pay them fair wages. It was the last major sticking point before the deal goes to eight senators — four Democrats, four Republicans — to sign off on the details and propose legislation. They are looking to set in motion the most significant changes to the faltering U.S. immigration system in more than two decades.

“There are a few details yet. But conceptually, we have an agreement between business and labor, between ourselves that has to be drafted,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The plan would provide a new class of worker visas for low-skilled workers, secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants already here.

But that effort hasn’t taken the form of a bill, and the senators searching for a compromise haven’t met about the potential breakthrough. They plan to introduce their framework when they return from recess the week of April 8 and move to schedule a vote.

The agreement could allow an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., negotiated the deal between U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO labor coalition President Richard Trumka.

The detente between the business lobbying group and the nation’s leading labor federation still needs senators’ approval, including a nod from Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose previous efforts came up short.

As it stands now, the reform calling for 10,000 worker visas is unacceptable to the International Franchise Association.

“That is nothing,” said Jay Perron, the group’s vice president of government affairs and public policy.

The association is calling for 100,000 visas, which is the minimum number Perron says would make the policy effective. He argued that too many Americans have at least a high school education and are not seeking fast-food jobs for their permanent employment. Recent immigrants or temporary workers, however, do seek and thrive in them.

George Zografos, CEO of Z Donut Co., an independently owned and operated franchise of Dunkin’ Donuts, said, “If that lower-skilled job force dried up, the cycle would fail.”

Zografos owns 12 Dunkin’ Donuts on Cape Cod, Mass., employing 220 people. Both he and Khan were in Las Vegas last week attending the 2013 Multi-Unit Franchising Conference at Caesars Palace.

In the future, Khan wants to grow his Church’s Chicken operation into a $1 billion business. But he’s not sure he’ll be able to accomplish that if immigration reform passes as is.

“For us in the restaurant business, our biggest problem is the labor pool,” Khan said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Laura Carroll at lcarroll@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4588. Follow @lscvegas on Twitter.

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