MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now we turn to immigration and the debate within the Republican Party over the issue. Republican leaders, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, are pressing the party to embrace a comprehensive immigration plan. But many House Republicans want to increase border security first and are wary of any policy that could create a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are currently in the country without proper authorization. Now, a new group is hoping to tip the balance. It's called Republicans for Immigration Reform.
That group has collected the signatures of more than 100 GOP donors - including Karl Rove and former Vice President Dan Quayle - on a letter urging conservative lawmakers to, quote, fix our broken immigration system, unquote. The effort is spearheaded by Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush. He's the cofounder and chair of Republicans for Immigration Reform, and he's with us on the line from Miami. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us. Welcome back to the program.
CARLOS GUTIERREZ: Thank you. Pleasure to be back.
MARTIN: You know, as you know, probably better than anybody, the Republican House majority feels uneasy - and that's kind of putting it mildly for some - that the Senate immigration bill creates a path to citizenship for immigrants who are here illegally. In your letter, you call for giving these undocumented workers legal status. Is that different from citizenship? What is that?
GUTIERREZ: We already have a path to citizenship. That's already in the law. What we don't have in law is a way to make the people who are here undocumented legal. So what we're proposing is that the bill make them legal, and if they choose to pursue citizenship, they can get through the process that already exists. What a lot of people want to avoid is the sense that we gave the undocumented folks a special path, which put people who have been waiting in line at a disadvantage. You know, we're talking about legalization - and I'll tell you, citizenship is going to happen. If folks pursue it, it happens 13, 15 years down the road. I don't think we should deny them legal status just because someone wants a special path to citizenship put into the law.
MARTIN: You're saying in the letter you wrote that doing nothing is de facto amnesty. Can you explain that?
GUTIERREZ: Absolutely. If we do nothing, we are essentially just saying, you can stay in the country, you can do whatever you want. Every day, the system becomes more dysfunctional. I just think it's highly irresponsible to do nothing because we know we have a huge problem and this affects our economy. Immigration is primarily an economic tool. It's an economic advantage that we have, but we have such a broken system that we can't turn it into an advantage.
Everyone talks about the 11 million undocumented, and obviously that's a very important part of the reform, but it's not the only part. And I would say the most important part that people talk very little about is the new legal system - the future flow of immigrants beyond the 11 million who are in the country. How do we ensure that we have the right number of agricultural workers, the right number of PhDs, the right number of construction workers? What worries me about the Senate bill is that the caps are so low for future immigration. For example, there is a 15,000 worker cap for construction. And I tell people, jokingly, look, we need 15,000 in Miami.
MARTIN: You talk about immigration as an economic benefit, but to whom? I mean, there is a countervailing argument that this country's immigration policies, over the last decades, have continually suppressed wages and made it harder for native-born groups with less education, including Latinos who have been here longer, who, for whatever reason, haven't achieved the same educational opportunities as other groups.
MARTIN: ...African-Americans with limited education that really - that this has not been an economic boon for them. It's continually suppressed their wages and really removed any pressure from employers in the country, in general, to improve their educational standing and their economic standing. What's your answer to that?
GUTIERREZ: I think it's actually the other way around. You know, when people say to me, why do we need immigration reform? We have 7.5 percent unemployment. My answer is, we need immigration reform precisely because we have 7.5 percent unemployment. I'll just give you two examples, real-world examples. I was talking to a restaurant owner the other day. He has three restaurants. He said, look, if I had enough workers, I would own eight restaurants, and if I had eight restaurants, I would hire more U.S. citizens.
A farmer who's saying, if I had more workers, I would farm more, then I'd be able to open up more distribution centers. I would hire more U.S. citizens. I would even export. So for every 100 jobs that immigrants have, they create 42 jobs for U.S. citizens.
MARTIN: Well, OK. So the unemployment rate overall is 7 percent, and among African-Americans, it's in the 14 percent range. So tell me again...
MARTIN: ...How this benefits...
MARTIN: ...Those groups that are particularly vulnerable and have particularly suffered during this downturn.
GUTIERREZ: There is such a thing as jobs that Americans won't do. OK, so let's go back to agriculture. The Senate bill has a cap of 110,000 agricultural workers every year. We need about a million. So where do we get the remainder? It's very sad. What do these farms do? What do these family farms do? Do they go out of business? Do they hire illegals or do they move their farm to Mexico? So...
MARTIN: Or maybe...
GUTIERREZ: ...There are jobs.
MARTIN: ...They could pay more. Or maybe those jobs would be more attractive, just in the same way that executive jobs - the compensation...
GUTIERREZ: Well, they do, and...
MARTIN: ...For executive jobs have been bid up continually over the last sort of decade, perhaps...
MARTIN: ...The same phenomenon would work there?
GUTIERREZ: The farmers who work the system legally, who stay within the bounds of the law, pay about $11.50 an hour. I'm saying that's not bad for very, very, very low-skilled manual work - very tough work. But they're competing against people who are hiring illegally. They have trouble competing. They're going to go out of business. So if you make the system legal, then wages will naturally go up. In every industry, there are some limits as to how much you can pay.
But the people who are in the country are not matched up to the skills we need. And - what demographers call - our fertility replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman of child bearing age. Our average is about 1.9. Without immigration, our population will decline. A declining population is a declining economy and a declining society.
MARTIN: The timing of the letter, as members are about to go on recess. The point...
MARTIN: ...Is what?
GUTIERREZ: They're about to go on recess and as they start hearing from people who don't understand the issue, who really don't understand the complexity of immigration, are crying out amnesty, that they should know that there are other very influential and very important Republicans who are crying out and saying, fix the problem.
MARTIN: I don't use the word tactic in a demeaning way or to be disrespectful...
GUTIERREZ: I understand. I understand.
MARTIN: ...But an approach of people who believe that the party is moving in the wrong direction in other areas has been to mount primary challenges to candidates and to office holders who, in their view, aren't getting it. Has your group contemplated the same strategy?
GUTIERREZ: We want to do two things. We want to get the vote, the Republican vote for reform. And then, if necessary, obviously we support Republicans who are getting a primary challenge from their right because they happen to vote for immigration reform. So it's a two-step process, but there's no question that that's what people are worried about - is voting for reform and then going back to the district and being challenged by someone who, you know, is, you know, going to knock down the whole effort. And it's just not right because our country is suffering. The land of immigrants is being outdone by countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, who have updated their laws for the 21st century. We have not. And that's something we need to do.
MARTIN: Carlos Gutierrez served as Secretary of Commerce in the administration of President George W. Bush. He's the cofounder and chair of the political action committee Republicans for Immigration Reform. He's now the vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group. That's a commercial diplomacy firm. And we caught up with him in Miami. Mr. Secretary, thank you for speaking with us once again. We hope we'll talk again.
GUTIERREZ: Thank you. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.