Prominent business leaders and Republicans held a forum in Nashville on Wednesday to build support for immigration reform among the public and members of Congress.
The Senate passed a far-reaching immigration measure in June that includes border security, workplace enforcement and a path to citizenship. But the majority of House Republicans remain opposed to any path to citizenship, creating concerns that legislators will be unable to craft a compromise bill.
Part of the idea of the Wednesday forum was to keep momentum for reform going during the congressional recess.
Speaking to an audience that included representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, all Republicans, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Randy Johnson rejected the idea that immigration reform is destined to fail once again.
Johnson said there has been a "seismic shift" on the issue in recent years, with many people now agreeing that immigrants need some sort of legal status.
"Things have changed," he said. "Six years ago, people were still talking about anything but deportation as amnesty."
Johnson also noted that while many conservative Christians were against immigration reform the last time it came up before Congress, this time a coalition of evangelical Christians has begun actively promoting the reform effort.
"They have been very helpful in reaching out to Republicans," he said.
The Wednesday panel included Pastor Eddie Poole, of the Life Church of Mt. Juliet, who said he probably was one of those evangelicals who were against immigration reform last time around. Since then, however, a young woman at his church fell in love with and married a man who was living in the U.S. illegally.
When the husband applied for a visa, he was required to return to Mexico for a year and a half before he could come back. During that time, the wife was working two jobs and taking care of her son and her disabled father.
The husband "kind of got lost in the system, we felt like," Poole said.
Another panelist, Bob Pitts, senior adviser to the Associated Builders and Contractors of Middle Tennessee, said the businesses he works with that employ immigrants want to obey the law, but they need the regulations to be simple and clear.
Both Pitts and Wes Blumenshine, general counsel for Caterpillar, Inc., said businesses need more highly skilled workers.
Blumenshine said there is no financial advantage to hiring foreign workers, because companies are required to pay the prevailing wage. It's just that there are not enough skilled American workers to fill the need, he said.
"Jobs go unfilled and our competitiveness is hurt. ... This is not hypothetical. The facts bear it out."
Lacy Upchurch, president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers also are not looking to foreign workers for inexpensive labor. They are willing to pay unskilled workers well, but need a dependable labor force.
"For farmers all across the state of Tennessee, the number one issue is the uncertainty of labor. ...We need an adequate supply of farm labor for the success of Tennessee agriculture and U.S. agriculture."
Upchurch said he believes the current situation is one of de facto amnesty for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he would like for everyone in the country to be here under some kind of legal status.
"When our laws are ignored with impunity, it breeds disrespect for the law," he said.