A group of South Carolina business leaders, ranging from the agriculture to tourism industry, say federal immigration reform is important for business interests in the Palmetto State.

For Chalmers Carr, owner of Titan Farms in South Carolina, the U.S. immigration woes are a national security issue. For an example, he says only about 1 percent of fruit imported to America is inspected. He’d like to see more fruit produced inside the U.S. borders and it would be easier to do that, he says, with a guest worker program stemming from immigration reform. And Chalmers, who says his peach farming company is one of the largest employers of migrant workers in the state, notes that the percentage of undocumented workers in the agricultural field is between 50 and 75 percent.

“A country that cannot feed itself cannot defend itself,” Chalmers says.

Shell Suber, an Upstate political consultant who works for The Felkel Group, set up a conference call with business leaders about the issue, including Chalmers. In opening remarks, Suber noted that immigration reform has for years been mired in what he called an emotional environment. “Regardless of political ideology, this is a business need,” he said.

Representing the tourism industry, Hannah Horn, director of public policy and small business for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, said it’s important to remember that while immigration reform will help support the labor force in the hospitality and tourism industry, it also has benefits on the other side of the cash register from a consumer standpoint.

“Immigration reform also includes a conversation about allowing our customers into the country,” she says. Because of that, her Lowcountry business group supports a temporary worker program, easier access to obtaining a green card, and a relaxed visa waiver program so immigrants from countries like Brazil and Chile can come to the U.S. easier.

In deeply red South Carolina, immigration reform has long been a controversial issue. In fact, in 2008 a right-wing challenger to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who supports immigration reform, based his entire campaign on the incumbent’s support for it, labeling him Senator Grahamnesty. Pro-immigration reform advocates having the backing of the business community here could likely mitigate emotional nativist reactions among the electorate.

After the 2012 elections, calls for reform on immigration issues began to come from a more broad political spectrum than before, Suber says. “There was genuine political momentum,” he added. “The U.S. Senate, pushed by that momentum, finally passed a long-awaited reform bill. It wasn’t perfect, but it was more movement than has been seen in a long time on this issue. Then over the summer and fall other national issues crowded the field and the effort stalled in the House.”

Last week, about 30 tourism industry leaders met with Graham for a roundtable discussion in Charleston where immigration reform dominated the conversation. Horn was there. She said Graham predicted next year the U.S. House will have to get the ball rolling on it, but said he feared it would end up being a piecemeal kind of rollout featuring several different bills rather than a comprehensive omnibus package.

As the director of the Columbia-based S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Sue Berkowitz has been working on immigration issues for years. She says she’d love to have an omnibus bill rather than different proposals.

“Clearly there has to be a way to help people who might not have necessarily come through the right channels and find themselves undocumented here,” she says. “They should have an opportunity to work their way through. We’d love to see a pathway to citizenship for adults, and for children.”

South Carolina has a history of business leaders pushing the state forward on controversial civil rights issues. In 1961, a prominent Upstate business leader named Charles Daniel, the founder of one of the world’s largest construction companies, made a famous speech at the annual Watermelon Festival in Hampton County. In his speech, now known as the Watermelon Speech, Daniel said ending segregation and creating an integrated workforce would benefit business and all the state’s citizens, and he later led an effort to hire black workers at his company, not only in entry level positions but in management as well.

When it comes to immigration reform, one group trying to frame the issue around business and industry is the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bi-partisan coalition of more than 500 mayors. The group’s director, Jeremy Robins, who is working with Suber and business leaders in South Carolina, calls immigration reform a necessary way for America to stay competitive in a global economy.

“It used to be the case that the broken immigration system was not as large a drag on our economy because talented people and workers in key sectors of the economy didn’t really have other options of places to go,” he says. “But globalization has made our competitors more attractive to prospective immigrants, and our competitors have responded by changing their immigration laws to attract talent that would otherwise be here.”

He adds that the labor market is not a zero sum game where a job either goes to an immigrant or a native born worker. “If we get the right workers, our economy grows and we create more jobs for American workers,” he says. “That’s the business message.”

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