Confronting Political Gridlock, U.S. Corporations Form Immigration Initiative

September 21, 2019, 3:00 PM UTC
Soren Bjorn
Soren Bjorn speaks during an interview at the company's headquarters in Watsonville, California, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

For Driscoll’s President Soren Bjorn, an example of just one of the litany of issues plaguing the U.S. immigration system showed up in the form of uncharacteristically heavy rains in mid-September along California’s Central Coast.

The precipitation would delay work at the tail end of strawberry harvest season, before next year’s crops are planted. For Driscoll’s and other farm-related businesses that rely on the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers, a last-minute delay of a few weeks means significant losses. 

“The rules are not very flexible, it’s cumbersome, it’s kind of expensive, and it doesn’t reflect the reality of what happens on a farm,” Bjorn said of the H-2A, arguing it needs to be more malleable to meet the needs of both workers and employers. 

“So the workforce shows up for harvest, but they have nothing to do. You still have to pay them if you brought them in from outside the country, and that quickly becomes not affordable … The growers we have today that have taken the step to do H-2As are at a significant economic disadvantage.”

Immigration reform proposals have sprouted from the hopeful mouths of presidents and legislators for more than a decade only to wither and die on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations have watched troubling indicators for the immigrant workforce continue unabated.

In early September, following a 2019 trend of corporations taking a more public stance on political issues, numerous companies organized by the National Immigration Forum signed on to a “New American Workforce” public letter promoting immigrant integration, including citizenship drives and English courses, policy support, and community services. Additionally, a half dozen—Driscoll’s, Walmart, Chobani, Lyft, Uber, and Ben and Jerry’s—have formed an immigration corporate roundtable advocating for a joint platform. The roundtable is made up of a broad group of large U.S. corporations by design. 

“The diversity of industry and diversity of skill levels included is a powerful representation of the value of the immigrant workforce,” said Jennie Murray, director of integration programs at the National Immigration Forum. “The topline message is when the immigrant workforce has the skills, status, and opportunity to reach their fullest potential, we all thrive.”

In 2018, there were more than 28 million foreign-born workers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, constituting 17% of the U.S. labor force. In industries such as agriculture, service, maintenance, and construction, foreign-born labor makes up anywhere from a quarter to half of the workers.

“This is a topic where you need allies—you need a lot of people to accomplish something. It is politically highly complex and not that easy to solve,” Bjorn said. 

“The foreign born [agricultural] workforce is shrinking in size and there aren’t so many clear solutions on the table today for where that workforce is going to come from in the future. This is a significant threat to our business, and any U.S. company in the fresh fruit and vegetable business.”

It has already been a significant year for corporations taking stock of the political climate and wading into issues once kept at a distance. Walmart introduced new policies on ammunition sales and open carry in its stores, as did several other retailers, after the mid-summer string of mass shootings. 

In August, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of CEOs, redefined its mission to include balancing the needs of employees, suppliers and communities with the formerly singular drive to maximize profits for shareholders.  

“Corporate America is seeing that congress is unable to act, and the administration is heading in a direction they are not comfortable with when it comes to immigration,” Murray said, pointing to several programs on the administration chopping block such as refugee resettlement, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and Temporary Protected Status, being met with few proposals for strengthening the pipeline of immigrant talent.  

Bjorn emphasized Driscoll’s had been considering taking a more proactive stance on immigration for years, and joining the roundtable was not a response to President Donald Trump. Taking a more public stance, they hope to avoid policies myopically focused on enforcement and one time solutions that avoid addressing the underlying issues. 

“We can’t start with E-verify, eliminate the workforce, and then start working on other pieces,” Bjorn said. “We need it to be comprehensive. We need a workforce that is legal and documented. The small business farmer growing a crop would much prefer his workforce be fully documented”

Bjorn, himself a native of Denmark currently in the process of getting his U.S. citizenship, said Driscoll’s will be working on a consensus agenda with the other roundtable members, several of which have executives who are intimately familiar with the U.S. immigration system. Roundtable co-chair Chobani’s CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, for example, emigrated from Turkey. 

“We know that our business, as well as our communities and our country, are stronger when people of all identities are given opportunity and access. We’re proud to serve as co-chair of the Corporate Roundtable and stand with other businesses that are working to create that opportunity for people and their families who have come to this country in search of a better life,” the company said in a statement. 

The roundtable members will now meet in the months ahead to share thoughts on workforce integration, research focuses, and where to throw their weight in the policy discussion. 

“We’ve been near the finish line numerous times over the last 12 to 14 years and never been able to get immigration reform across,” Bjorn said. “I’m optimistic that we have every bit as good of an opportunity now, and it’s not any less likely with this administration than previous ones. I think it’s pretty clear that if we want a thriving economy in this country we need the immigrant workforce to be a significant participant.” 

More must-read stories from Fortune:

New York’s rape laws are now some of the toughest in the nation. Here’s why
—These are the 2020 senate races to watch
—Jeff Bezos details Amazon’s net-zero carbon emissions 2040 goal
—A doctor who prescribes abortion pills online is suing the FDA. Is she breaking the law?
Can Andrew Yang win in 2020? Inside his unorthodox campaign
Get up to speed on your morning commute with Fortune’s CEO Daily newsletter.

Read More

Biden AdministrationUkraine InvasionInflationEnergyCybersecurity