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Why Employers In Georgia Are Watching The Immigration Debate Closely

Feb 19, 2018
Originally published on February 19, 2018 10:04 pm

As the Senate tries to hash out a deal on immigration, it's not just immigrants that have a lot at stake. So do the businesses that hire them.

"We are suffering very much from shortage of labor — skilled labor — here in Dalton," said Ahmed Salama, the CEO of Oriental Weavers USA, the American branch of a giant Egyptian company. Salama recently showed me around his factory in Dalton, Ga., where hulking machines weave bright-colored yarn together.

Dalton bills itself as the "carpet capital of the world." Wall-to-wall carpeting was basically invented here after World War II. Today, Dalton is ringed by big factories that make most of the carpet sold in the U.S.

It's a conservative corner of northwest Georgia where Donald Trump won more than 70 percent of the vote. But even here, some employers are nervous that the Trump administration's immigration policies will make it harder to find enough workers.

"Two years ago, I wish I'd had this problem, because you could've wallpapered our office with the resumes," said Layton Roberts, the CEO of Employment Innovations Inc., a staffing company in nearby Rome, Ga. Roberts says he's scrambling to fill hundreds of job openings.

Business is booming in Dalton. The town has finally bounced back from the Great Recession, when it suffered some of the worst job losses in the country. Now employers here have a different problem: too many open jobs, and not enough applicants to fill them.

Roberts supports President Trump, who he thinks has been good for business. Still, Roberts is anxious about what the president's immigration policies could mean for the local economy. He's particularly concerned about the future of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

DACA allows undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to live and work here.

"What kind of impact, if those folks are gonna be deported, what's that gonna have on the labor force?" Roberts asked. "It's a legitimate question."

DACA is now at the center of the immigration debate on Capitol Hill, and in the courts. The Trump administration moved to end the program, saying that Congress needs to come up with a replacement. And employers in Dalton are worried about what happens next.

"DACA has been a big issue for us," said Rob Bradham, president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce. "Just because they're valuable employees to our industries, and we don't we don't want to lose them." Bradham says as many as 4,000 DACA recipients live in the Dalton area.

That's not the only thing employers here are worried about.

The Trump administration has also threatened to crack down on businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. In Dalton, that's bringing back memories of the 1990s, when immigration authorities raided some of the biggest carpet mills in town. Now, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is talking about ramping up workplace raids again.

"This year you're gonna see a significant increase in worksite enforcement," ICE acting director Thomas Homan says. "We gonna hold employers responsible, and take action on the employer. Plus we're going to arrest the illegal alien that's working at the site."

In Georgia, this should not be a problem. The state passed a law a few years ago that requires big employers to use the federal E-Verify system, an online tool that reviews paperwork Internet to ensure that workers have legal status.

But immigration lawyers say in practice, the system isn't foolproof.

"There are some employers in this area that I know of that do hire a lot of illegal immigrants, that do not have status," said Joseph Baldwin, a local immigration attorney. He says he's gotten calls from nervous employers.

"They're saying, I can't afford to lose these employees that are really sort of running things here," Baldwin said. "You know these guys have no criminal records. They've got families. They're really part of my family now. What can we do? Unfortunately, more times than not, the answer is, there's no solution."

Community leaders told me that only about 10 percent of immigrants in Dalton are here illegally, and that most do have legal status. Some have lived in Dalton for decades, raising families and starting businesses here.

Mariscos Puerto Vallarta is a seafood restaurant in Dalton that's owned by Mexican immigrants. Over a lunch of ceviche and fish tacos, several local businessmen said that fear and uncertainty hang over a lot of families here.

"A family that has someone with DACA, they don't know yet what's gonna happen," said Francisco Paniagua, who owns two car dealerships in the Dalton area. "All these people, they could buy houses. They could buy cars, whatever. But they are afraid. They are not spending money right now, I think."

These community leaders say that's a problem for business. And the region's economy, too.

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Last week, the Senate tried and failed to cut a deal to protect people who have coverage under DACA. That's the program for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. Now those immigrants are still in limbo. So are their employers and their communities. NPR's Joel Rose visited one town in Georgia that has been watching the immigration debate closely.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Dalton calls itself the carpet capital of the world. It's a town in the Appalachian foothills where wall-to-wall carpeting was basically invented after World War II. Today, Dalton is ringed by big factories that make most of the carpets sold in the U.S., where hulking machines weave bright-colored yarns together.

AHMED SALAMA: We make rugs and the yarn for rugs.

ROSE: Ahmed Salama runs the U.S. branch of Oriental Weavers, an Egyptian company. Salama recently showed me around his factory in Dalton. He says it's hard to find the workers he needs to keep these machines running.

SALAMA: We are suffering very much from shortage of labor, skilled labor, here in Dalton.

ROSE: Business is booming in Dalton. The town has finally bounced back from the Great Recession when it suffered some of the worst job losses in the country. Now employers here have a different problem - too many open jobs and not enough applicants to fill them.

LAYTON ROBERTS: Two years ago, I'd wished I had this problem because you could have wallpapered our office with the resumes.

ROSE: Layton Roberts runs a staffing company near Dalton. And he's scrambling to fill hundreds of job openings. Roberts supports President Trump and thinks he's been good for business. Still, he's anxious about what Trump's immigration policies could mean for the local economy.

ROBERTS: What kind of impact, if those folks are going to be deported, what's that going to have on the labor force? And it's a legitimate question.

ROSE: Roberts is concerned about the future of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA allows undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to live and work here. It's now at the center of the immigration debate on Capitol Hill and in the courts. The Trump administration has moved to end the program, saying that Congress needs to come up with a replacement.

But employers in Dalton are worried that lawmakers won't be able to agree on a deal to do that. Rob Bradham is the president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

ROB BRADHAM: DACA has been a big issue for us just because they're valuable employees to our industries and we don't want to lose them.

ROSE: Bradham says as many as 4,000 DACA recipients live in the Dalton area. And that's not the only thing employers here are worried about. The Trump administration has also threatened to crack down on businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. That's bringing back memories in Dalton. In the 1990s, immigration authorities raided some of the biggest carpet mills in town.

Now Immigration and Customs Enforcement is talking about ramping up workplace raids again, as acting director Thomas Homan told NPR.

THOMAS HOMAN: This year, you're going to see a significant increase in worksite enforcement. We're going to hold employers responsible and take action on the employer. Plus we're going to arrest the illegal alien that's working at the site.

ROSE: In Georgia, this should not be a problem. The state passed a law a few years ago that requires big employers to use the federal E-Verify system. That online system reviews paperwork to ensure that workers have legal status. But immigration lawyers say in practice, the system is not foolproof.

JOE BALDWIN: There are some employers in this area that I know of that do hire a lot of illegal immigrants.

ROSE: Joe Baldwin is a local immigration attorney. He says he's gotten calls from nervous employers.

BALDWIN: They're saying, I can't afford to lose these employees that are really sort of running things here. You know, these guys have no criminal records, they've got families. They're really part of my family now. What can we do? Unfortunately, more times than not, the answer is there's no solution.

ROSE: Community leaders told me that only about 10 percent of immigrants in Dalton are here illegally and that most do have legal status. Some have lived in Dalton for decades, raised families and started businesses.

CESAR NUNO: This is Mariscos Puerto Vallarta. It's a family restaurant. And my family has been doing this for over 30 years.

ROSE: That's Cesar Nuno (ph). His family owns the restaurant where I met some local businessmen for ceviche and tacos. One of them, Francisco Paniagua, owns two car dealerships in the Dalton area. He told me there's fear and uncertainty hanging over a lot of families.

FRANCISCO PANIAGUA: A family that has someone with DACA, they don't know yet what's going to happen. They could buy houses, they could buy cars, whatever. But they are afraid. They are not spending money right now, I think.

ROSE: These community leaders say that's a problem for business and the region's economy. Joel Rose, NPR News, Dalton, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.