On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) engaged in a heated debate with audience members at a town hall in Arizona over a bipartisan plan to propose new immigration reform measures -- which include a hotly debated path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. While the crowd that gathered to hear McCain speak was less than enthusiastic about the idea, some local entrepreneurs say they gladly welcome the promise of immigration reform.

“There is a disconnect between some residents and business owners,” says Todd Landfried, the executive director for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform. “Part of it has to do with people not knowing the facts, and part of it is people not wanting to know the facts — they’re just dead-set in opposition against any kind of reform.”

David Jones, CEO of the Arizona Construction Association, agrees with Landfried that comprehensive immigration reform is crucial to Arizona’s economic future. Regarding construction, Jones says peaks in needing labor come on a weekly basis – a timeline that he says doesn’t work with the current visa process.

“You might need 25 carpenters one week, and none the next,” he says.

And as the economy and construction pick up, he adds the situation will become increasingly dire for construction businesses in Arizona.

“As of now, we do not have the skilled labor to meet the demand and the huge appetites for construction,” says Jones.

Landfried says that even after raising wages $5-10, Arizona still has not been able to attract enough skilled workers.

“It takes a certain type of worker to be willing to work in 115 degree heat, 50-100 feet in the air. There just aren’t enough domestic workers who want to do this type of work,” says Landfried.

But construction isn’t the only sector hurt by Arizona’s current immigration laws, which are some of the most stringent in the United States. Garrick Taylor, the senior vice president of government relations and communication for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says that the “bureaucratic red tape” surrounding the H-2A visa for agricultural workers is so cumbersome that by the time businesses are able to accept workers, their need has passed.

“No business has ever come to the Chamber and said that our visa system is a piece of cake,” says Taylor.

Arizona’s STEM businesses are also in need of highly trained workers, Taylor says. “If we can achieve effective visa reform, we can attract the best and the brightest and allow them to contribute not only to the success of American companies, but to American companies broadly as well.”

Has the Pressure to Keep the Border Safe Hurt the Economy?

At the McCain town hall meeting, the need to secure the borders seemed to be top of mind for many in the audience. According to Jones, Arizona has added 14,000 border patrol guards since 2004, which has made marked improvements in border security. But, he says, "as one state tightens security, the dynamic shifts to the border in a different state. Using the latest technology to monitor the border – such as the drones used in Afghanistan – will be much more efficient than older systems.”

Aside from border patrols, the other efforts in place aimed at making Arizona inhospitable to illegal immigrants has also made it less friendly to small businesses, says Landfried.

The SB 1070 Act, which gives law enforcement officials the right to stop individuals if they believe the person in question might be an illegal immigrant, has dramatically damaged the business environment in Arizona, according to Landfried. “Even if you are a Hispanic U.S. citizen, and you know you could move to Arizona for a job opportunity – would you want to move your family to a place that has the perception of not being friendly to you?”

Landfried says that estimates suggest that between 100,000 and 250,000 people have left Arizona due to the current immigration policies.

“Think about the context,” says Landfried. “These people were workers and consumers who bought stuff, rented homes and went out to restaurants. Our economy cannot eject a quarter of a million people and not feel the effects.”

Jones agrees that SB 1070 has made many small business owners uncomfortable, because it threatens business owners with the possibility of getting shut down if it’s proven that they employ an illegal immigrant – even if the worker had successfully gotten past the state’s E-Verify worker identification program.  

And, according to Landfried, the travel tourism and convention industry are hurting as well.

“People decided not to come here, and not to book conferences or conventions here, because they disagreed with our policies,” says Landfried. A study by the Center for American Progress showed a total loss of $388 million in economic output due to cancellations and booking declines after the passage of SB 1070.

What do you think about immigration reform, and how it affects small businesses and the economy? Send us your thoughts at smbs@foxbusiness.com.

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