By Heidi Soumerai, CFA
From the Summer 2011 Edition of Values

Here’s a short quiz: Which high profile organization urges comprehensive immigration reform that has “an earned pathway to legalization for undocumented workers already contributing to our economy, provided that they are law abiding and prepared to embrace the obligations and values of our society”?

The answer may surprise you. The statement is from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber). As has been well documented in this newsletter, on environmental policy, healthcare reform, political spending transparency, and other matters, Walden has its differences with the Chamber. Yet we agree entirely that a sound U.S. immigration policy–one that includes a pathway–is a business imperative. We also believe that reform is a human rights necessity. The near-toxic tone of this debate has relegated immigration reform to a political dead zone. We believe business has an opportunity, and responsibility, to help end the impasse by speaking publicly for comprehensive reform.

The historic and ongoing importance of immigrants in creating a prosperous U.S. economy is widely understood and well documented. In March, for example, the annual Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, a leading indicator of new business creation in the United States, concluded: “A growing immigrant population and rising entrepreneurship rate contributed to a rise in the share of new entrepreneurs that are immigrant, from 13.4 percent in 1996 to 29.5 percent in 2010.” Meanwhile, many U.S. industries depend on immigrants, including undocumented workers, to operate their businesses. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that unauthorized workers in 2008 made up 14 percent of construction, 13 percent of agriculture, and 10 percent of leisure and hospitality employment. The bottom line: To compete globally, U.S. business must attract and retain the most talented and motivated people across the job-skill spectrum.

Lack of progress on federal immigration reform along with several draconian state legislative efforts increasingly threatens the human rights of immigrants, some of whom face growing discrimination and violence. At least 5 million children of undocumented immigrants, most born in the United States, endure an uncertain future that imperils the integrity of their families. Moreover, fear of exposure keeps undocumented workers, who are disproportionately represented in low wage occupations, vulnerable to unscrupulous employers who can violate wage, safety, and discrimination laws with impunity.

Earlier this year Walden co-led an investor initiative, representing approximately $145 billion in assets, to encourage business leaders to speak out for comprehensive immigration reform. The coalition of faith-based investors, investment firms, unions, and the New York City Comptroller John Liu wrote to more than 150 CEOs to ask for their public support of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway for currently undocumented workers. We cited the Mayor Bloomberg-led Partnership for a New American Economy (the Partnership), a bipartisan coalition of mayors and business leaders who are making the case for sensible immigration reform. Corporate leaders who are already speaking out through the Partnership include co-chairs Microsoft and Walt Disney, as well as Adobe SystemsJPMorgan ChaseQuest Diagnostics, and Time Warner Cable.

About two dozen companies responded to our letter including ApacheColgate-PalmoliveDevon Energy, Emerson Electric, IBM, McDonald’s, Merck, PepsiCo, Praxair, and Procter & Gamble. Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos expressed concern regarding the lack of progress on immigration policy and subsequently joined the Partnership. Many responding companies focused on their overall commitment to internationally recognized labor standards and several are exploring the Partnership. Most, however, reserve public policy advocacy for matters that are very directly tied to business interests. With our partners, Walden intends to follow up with companies on a targeted basis.

Partnership co-chair and Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger said the following about immigration: “It’s our great strength as a nation, and it’s also critical for continued economic growth. To remain competitive in the 21st century, we need effective immigration reform that invites people to contribute to our shared success by building their own American dream.”

We believe that similar encouragement from other corporate leaders can help foster the political will necessary to make progress.