Immigration reforms must allow guest and temporary workers

Immigrants are an essential part of Nevada’s economy. In the past two decades, Nevada has had the fifth-fastest-growing immigrant population in the nation, and it has experienced firsthand the value that immigrants add as essential workers, new customers and job-creating entrepreneurs.

As policymakers in Washington hammer out a compromise on comprehensive immigration reform, they have a real opportunity to not just modernize a system that badly needs it, but to accelerate the economic recovery that is just beginning to take hold in Nevada and around the country.

The economic crisis hampered most businesses, but the recession hit Nevadans particularly hard. Even though my business, Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, was fortunate to weather the storm and continue to grow and prosper amid one of the worst economic downturns of our lifetimes, many of our friends and neighbors fell on hard times. The Nevada unemployment rate peaked at 14 percent in 2010.

Since then, things have steadily improved, and in the past year, the unemployment rate has dropped 4.2 percentage points and the economy has added 130,000 jobs. But we are still far from an economically healthy state.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one powerful antidote for a weak economy is a robust flow of immigrants. Immigrants grow the economy both as workers and as consumers. They produce goods that create economic activity down the supply chain, but they also purchase goods on the other end, providing demand for American-made products and services. More people means a bigger economy.

For Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, like many franchised businesses, guest workers are essential for daily operations, and industry growth is dependent on a streamlined process for allowing legal immigrant workers into the United States to meet the demand for jobs. Currently, this process is plagued by bureaucratic complexity, expensive administrative costs and a cap that denies employers the workers they need.

The estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the United States are a direct result of a broken system for legal immigration.

In addition to reforming broken visa programs, policymakers should seize this rare political opportunity to create a new program for temporary essential workers that will provide employers flexibility and allow them to address labor needs as they arise. In a dynamic, increasingly global economy like ours, market demands will come and go quickly, and having an immigration system that is equally agile will be critical for the continued success of American businesses: small, large and franchises.

This is my message to Congress: Don’t miss this opportunity to really fix what needs fixing and give our businesses the fuel they need to grow. Reform should focus on continued strengthening of border security while simplifying the current system and shifting to a market-based approach for allocating visas. Politicians should resist the temptation to pick winners and losers and, instead, pursue a flexible, demand-driven system that enables growing sectors of the economy, whether it is the quick-service restaurant industry or another, to fully realize their economic potential and fulfill their economic demand.

The future is bright for Capriotti’s: We are planning on having 500 restaurants by the end of the decade, many of them right here in Nevada. America’s economic future depends on franchises such as Capriotti’s being able to invest, expand and hire. Comprehensive immigration reform could be the catalyst that drives that growth, as long as it is actually comprehensive, and true reform.

Henderson resident Patrick K. Walls is president of Las Vegas-based Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop Inc. The business has 87 restaurants in 12 states, including 33 in Nevada.

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