Georgians are big-hearted people that take pride in their love of America.
As such, I can personally say that immigrants to our state share that love. My parents were refugees from Germany, who immigrated to Canada and then to the United States. I came here when I was 10 years old and as an adult, I proudly renounced my dual citizenship and became a U.S. citizen. I am a face of immigration: blonde-haired, green-eyed and fair-skinned, with a family like the United Nations -- parts Mexican, Polish, Columbian and black.
Over the past three decades, I have worked as a Georgia restaurateur. Over time, I have become increasingly involved in issues that affect the restaurant business as a whole, including immigration. During my first six months as head of the Georgia Restaurant Association, we placed immigration reform on the docket in the state legislature. Since then, I continue to advocate for common sense changes that will keep our economy moving.
My own immigration story is one of the many stories out there. Numerous and vibrant Korean, Hispanic and Indian immigrant communities call Georgia home, and they contribute a wide range of vital services to our economy. Former Democratic state Sen. Sam Zamarripa and former Republican state Sen. Dan Moody both fully realize the importance of immigrants to our economy and joined me in forming a coalition called the Essential Economy Council.
From cooks and crop pickers to dishwashers, housekeepers, janitors, landscape crews, nursing home aides, poultry workers and stock clerks, immigrants make up a labor force that collectively contributes $49 billion to our state economy. They are essential, filling important service roles that many others today are unwilling to fill.
In 2011, members of the Essential Economy held 25 percent of all jobs in Georgia.
Many of those jobs are in restaurants, which constitute a particularly large and growing share of our economy. In Georgia, restaurants provide almost 375,000 jobs and support countless other businesses. Restaurant jobs cannot be outsourced; we cannot send our dirty dishes to China or outsource our hostess to India.
Though most restaurants are small businesses, across the country they have collectively grown into a $632 billion annual industry, employing roughly 10 percent of the American work force. Restaurants often employ significant numbers of recent immigrants, without whom they simply cannot do business.
As my partners in the Essential Economy Council have shown me, the same is true in many other industries, including personal care and assisted living. Think about the effect of our aging population. As the baby boomers retire in greater numbers, economists project that we simply will not have enough health aides to keep up.
Despite what many might assume about illegal immigrants, about half of that population entered the country legally, but stayed beyond the extent of their paperwork. It's of little surprise that these people, like me, very much want to keep working in the Land of Opportunity. They simply have no easy way to extend their stays or apply for citizenship, a process that is even more complicated now than in decades past.
If we care about these workers, and our economy, we should provide undocumented immigrants a path to permanent legalization, thus affording them a means of acquiring permanent legal work status.
Like most states, Georgia would benefit from comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, establishing clear standards through E-Verify that are consistent from state to state for who is allowed to work in the United States and enabling employers everywhere to vet prospective hires.
As many point out, we also need to control our borders, but we must do it in a way that does not discourage the travel and tourism that is so vital to our economic recovery.
As taxpayers, we should all celebrate the prospect of bringing more than 11 million immigrants into the tent, ensuring that everyone who lives and works here contributes his or her fair share. Even as they agree on the broad strokes of reform, our senators and representatives must find a way to prevent undocumented immigrants from collecting entitlement benefits for which they have not paid taxes.
As I saw for decades in the restaurant business, immigrants are hard-working people just like us, who simply want to raise their families and provide their children with better lives than what they have.
In Georgia, and around the country, smart immigration reforms will help us protect our bottom line without turning away people we should be proud to call our employees, our neighbors and our friends.
As our population ages and as more and more people choose to dine out in our restaurants, we are counting on these employees to keep us growing.
Karen Bremer is Executive Director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.