Ask Robert Mundhenk what it's like trying to find workers for his landscaping business, and he puts it plainly: The last time he hired an Anglo field worker was maybe five years ago.
"No one wants to swing a pick and shovel anymore," said Mundhenk, owner of Robert Allen Ltd. "They want to get out of high school and make $15 an hour holding a street sign."
Perhaps no where else in the country does the issue of an amnesty or expanded guest worker program resonate as much as in Southern California, where a plurality of the nation's 3 million or more undocumented immigrants from Mexico are believed to reside.
The state has been home to a virulent anti-immigration movement that spawned Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that sought to deny health care, education and welfare benefits to these immigrants before most of it was declared unconstitutional.
But that was before the state's economy revved back to life later in the decade, something that the large immigrant workforce had much to do with.
"On balance we see it as having a positive economic impact," said Lee Harrington, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., a non-profit development agency.
For Mundhenk and others in the landscaping business, the large, unskilled pool of Latino immigrant labor has been nothing short of a godsend, allowing the industry to flourish in Southern California.
Still, he worries that the growing economy may lead to an increasing shortage of workers, and he is open to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, an idea drawing growing political support.
"I don't know if amnesty is the answer, but some solution must come about," said Mundhenk, whose company services clients out of offices in Santa Clarita and Orange County.
Mundhenk isn't alone.
While a proposal being delicately floated by the Bush Administration for some sort of amnesty has met with opposition from conservative groups, it has also generated support from those traditionally at loggerheads.Strange bedfellows
A coalition of business and labor is seeing nearly eye-to-eye on the matter for the first time in decades. The Mexican government, under the administration of President Vicente Fox, also is making the issue a priority.Their reasons may differ, but both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO are supporting an amnesty, and several labor and business groups across Southern California appear ready to back it as well.
Business groups want to reverse a provision of the last amnesty the 1986 law backed by the Reagan Administration that places the onus on employers to check worker legal status while making them subject to sanctions for violations.
Labor, which sought the employer sanctions, has now done an about-face, arguing that employers use the law to intimidate illegal workers from unionizing or complaining about poor working conditions.
Labor has also backed off its historical opposition to such amnesty programs, based on fears it would drive down wages. The reality is that large numbers of undocumented laborers have already entered the labor force. Labor now sees an amnesty as a tool to help organize them.
Employers also are downplaying fears that a mass amnesty or expanded guest worker program would depress wages.
"Theoretically if you increase the pool of labor, wages go down, but that assumes the economy is not growing," said Theresa Brown, manager of labor and immigration policy for the U.S chamber. "We think that by 2010 (without these new workers) the labor pool might start shrinking."
Charlie C.K. Woo, chief executive of Los Angeles toy maker Megatoys and chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees that an amnesty would make it easier to hire workers, but he doubts it would depress wages. More than anything, he hopes it would in some way make the paperwork process less painful.
"Sometimes we are left wondering if the paperwork is legitimate. But you don't want to be cop in the eyes of your employees," he said.
In California, the Service Employees International Union and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union support an amnesty in combination with an expanded guest workers program.
For business owners, an amnesty program could mark the end of what they consider the onerous burdens of the current labor law. Those regulations require all employees to fill out an Immigration and Naturalization Service form attesting to their legal work status.
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