When President Bush urged Congress in his State of the Union address in January to approve comprehensive immigration reform legislation, he moved this increasingly important issue to the forefront. Immigration laws are critically important to real estate firms. Not only do immigration rules greatly influence the industry's ability to hire qualified people to construct, maintain and operate properties, they also feed a diverse consumer pool that creates demand for apartments, houses, offices and retail space.

The terrorist attacks on 9-11 caused some lawmakers to press for immigration reform to reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Clearly, any immigration law reform must address the need for border security. But a prominent factor in the debate that cannot be ignored is the estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants that currently live in the U.S.

The National Multi Housing Council and National Apartment Association support comprehensive immigration reform. We believe that any attempt at reform legislation should both improve national security and create a guest worker program. Both components of reform may be an effective way to protect our borders and build our economy. Employer obligations must be phased in and should not amount to an unfunded mandate.

Defining ‘comprehensive’

Words carry considerable meaning in Washington, and when it comes to immigration reform, one of the most often heard words is “comprehensive.” In this context, comprehensive means reform that covers border security and a workable and enforceable guest worker program that would allow some qualified foreign workers to work in the U.S. Opponents of a guest worker program argue that it would effectively grant amnesty to law breakers. Supporters counter that undocumented individuals would have to apply for legal status and pay fines, which is not amnesty. They further argue that it is unworkable to criminalize more than 10 million undocumented individuals and send them home.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437). If it passes the Senate and is signed into law by President Bush, this controversial bill would require all employers — including real estate firms — to verify the legal status of all new and existing employees using a version of a federally managed database called the Basic Pilot Program, which is wrought with errors. If enacted, employers could be fined up to $40,000 per undocumented employee, compared to current fines of $250 to $2,000 per undocumented worker. Importantly, the bill does not include a guest worker program.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took up immigration reform in March, beginning debate on Committee Chairman Arlen Specter's (R-Penn.) proposal. Specter's bill would give legal status to individuals that have continuously resided and worked in the U.S. before Jan. 4, 2004. It would also create a new category of “H-2C” guest workers who would be permitted to work in this country for a limited time and then return home for at least one year before reapplying.

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who last year co-sponsored an immigration bill with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), believes that forcing undocumented workers to leave the country is not an option. Both McCain and Kennedy object to the Specter bill. Their proposal would allow undocumented workers to stay in the U.S. under a guest worker program, pay a fine and wait six years before applying for legal status. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) planned to bring a bill to the Senate floor in late March, even if that means he introduces his own measure.

Immigrants are vital to economy

Real estate firms are in regular need of new talent. According to the National Multi Housing Council's 2005 National Apartment Survey of Compensation and Benefits Practices, participating firms reported annual median employee turnover of 40%. Clearly, as an industry we need access to a full range of candidates in order to satisfy staffing needs.

Immigration laws targeting employers should protect our borders without forcing businesses to comply with costly, onerous requirements when less burdensome options are available. At a minimum, employers should not be forced to participate in a flawed employment verification system.

A phased-in worker verification system, as part of a comprehensive package that is not onerous to employers and creates a guest worker program, may be an effective approach to protecting our borders and building our economy.

Elizabeth Feigin Befus is director of property operations for the National Multi Housing Council/National Apartment Association in Washington, D.C.