Commerce chief says immigration reform vital for healthy economy

Gutierrez speaks to USC students

COLUMBIA -- If the U.S. economy is going to continue to grow, it will have to import labor and to do that, it must solve its immigration dilemma, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Monday during a visit to Columbia.

Gutierrez spoke to students at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. He was brought to South Carolina by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The two men worked on immigration reform during the last Congress.

"The immigration debate has really just started and going to be around for a long time," Gutierrez said. "It is not just the big question for this decade but of this century, not just for us, but just about every country in the world."

Gutierrez warned that without comprehensive immigration reform, the U.S. economy could stall in the next decade.

The U.S. labor force, he said, is growing at about 0.3 percent a year, while economists believe it needs to grow about 1 percent a year to sustain economic growth of about 3 percent a year.

Real growth is about 3.8 percent a year, and the economy has experienced about six years of uninterrupted growth

"If we are growing our work force at 0.3 percent, we cannot grow our economy by 3 percent," Gutierrez said. "We need the work force to grow at a faster pace."

Using immigrant labor is the only way to grow the work force and continue to grow the economy, "unless you conclude you just don't want to grow," he said.

But the United States is not the only nation grappling with immigration. Every other major economy in the world has huge problems with decreasing population and work force, Gutierrez said.

Economies such as those of Europe, Russia and Japan all are dealing with the need for workers.

"Every country around the world is also thinking about what is their policy regarding immigration," he said, "because they have to. They are looking at their own demographics."

The great thing, Gutierrez said, is that the United States knows more about immigration that any country in the world.

"Our advantage is that we have been doing it for 230 years," he said. "If we use that experience to our favor, we can have a competitive advantage not just for five or 10 years but for the next century."

Gutierrez and Graham worked together on the immigration legislation that failed in Congress last session. The two share similar views.

"We need a temporary-worker program in this country desperately," Graham told reporters.

If the country does not deal with the potential labor shortage, one of the first industries that will be impacted will be agriculture, the senator said. Problems then will spread throughout the economy.

Graham hopes Congress will try to tackle immigration again.

"The worst thing is to have 50 different immigration laws. We live in a global economy; we live in a very transient society. We cannot maintain this economic growth if every state and every town and every county has a different immigration law," he said.

"This is a national issue. It is a national problem."