DULUTH -- A measured and wide-ranging discussion on one of the more hot-button issues around the state and country took place on Tuesday in a Gwinnett Center conference room.
Leaders from several restaurant and agriculture trade associations, college professors, a local police chief and a deputy director of the Atlanta office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discussed first-hand issues they've experienced and potential solutions to immigration issues.
The panelists presented testimonies and statistics gathered from their industries on the issue and answered questions before the Georgia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Former state senator Charles Tanksley, who chaired the committee, said the group would prepare a short report on the forum soon, and produce a more detailed summary by the end of the year. Tanksley said the discussion achieved its goal of gathering more information about immigration.
The three main issues are border security, the illegals who are already in the country and how to handle fluctuating labor demands, Tanksley said.
"I heard from all of them something that is somewhat consistent, which is we've got to have a comprehensive approach," Tanksley said.
Martin R. Castro, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in January 2011, attended the forum and said it's an important issue not only for Georgia, but also the United States.
Castro said thoughtful discussions are great parts of the debate that will take place at the national level.
Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said employment verification tools should be strengthened, and an immigrant visa program should be established.
"Our nation has another opportunity to address immigration in a comprehensive way," Giles said. "We need a comprehensive effort to stand the test of time, so we don't find ourselves in 20 years with another set of problems."
Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said entry-level restaurant jobs are met with two sets of headwinds: aging demographics and younger people who are part of a "knowledge economy" that's expected to work in higher skilled jobs.
"We cannot have white-collar jobs if we don't have entry-level jobs," said Bremer, who suggested one part of a solution could be a flexible worker program to deal with seasonal issues.
While outsourcing may be a solution in some industries, it's not one for the restaurant industry, she said.
"You can't outsource a dishwasher to India, or a hostess to China," Bremer said.
Doraville Police Chief John King shared an email he received recently that said his officers should look into a group of men outside of a home improvement store who "looked illegal."
King said he later learned that the men were looking for employment, but he hesitated to pursue any arrest because they didn't appear to be breaking a law.
"How do I enforce this law without going down that slippery road of racial profiling," King said.
Feeding Americans domestically was also called a national security issue by Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
"It's crucial that the United States be able to feed itself," Hall said.
Following the implementation of House Bill 87 in 2011, Hall said there was a severe worker shortage that led to a $140 million loss of crops that year. While Hall didn't have updated figures from 2012, he said last year wasn't as bad.
Hall said because the "show your papers" section of HB 87 had been impounded, a worker shortage last year, "was not as major an issue."
The bill created new hire eligibility requirements for many Georgia businesses, and empowered police to investigate certain suspects' immigration status.
While Hall said there is a guest worker labor program, called "H-2A," which allows employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform temporary or seasonal labor.
But Hall added, "there's really no program in place to overcome HB 87."
Manuel Zurita, deputy director of the Atlanta office of the EEOC, which enforces federal laws against discrimination, said migrant workers are significantly underrepresented in discrimination cases because they're afraid of retaliation.
Zurita told one story of a female worker forced to have sex with a supervisor, but feared if she reported it that her husband and son would be deported.