"When you look at the skills shortage -- quote -- carefully, what you find is a lot of employers saying, 'I can't find the workers I need,'" Bernstein noted, "and what they're not saying is, 'at the wage I'd like to pay them.'"
It was a remarkable bit of candor in the like-minded group. But the real candor came from Barbour, who was quite open in his belief that the country needs more low-skilled workers to do awful jobs for low wages.
"If you go in a chicken processing plant in Mississippi, there's nobody in there who speaks English," Barbour said. (Poultry is his state's biggest agricultural industry.) "There is a very loud radio hanging from somewhere playing Spanish-language music. And this is hard, dirty ... work."
In fact, Barbour said, even prisoners in Mississippi's work-release program stay away from the chicken plants. "We have never had an inmate make it two days in a chicken processing plant," Barbour said. "They'd rather be in prison, literally, then work in a chicken processing plant."
"I am not very sympathetic to the idea that we're taking these jobs away from Americans," Barbour concluded.
Speaking after Barbour, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies -- the only participant who opposed reform -- raised a critical objection. Why don't some of the agricultural interests that Barbour mentioned, the ones that need so many low-skill workers, modernize instead? With more mechanization, they'd need far fewer workers.
"I've been to chicken plants, in Delaware, and most of the people there are Americans," Krikorian said. "It's not a horrible, filthy place to work ... much of it is actually automated."
American agriculture could adopt new technology rather than focusing solely on immigrant workers, Krikorian argued. "When you have unending sources of low-skill foreign labor, the incentive to automate is weaker."
The discussion reflected a core reality of the immigration debate. The elites of both political parties support reform. But even so, there are a few voices -- not just Krikorian, but Bernstein, too -- to remind them of the costs involved.
"Those of us who support comprehensive reform," Bernstein cautioned, "if we don't listen more carefully to those on the other side, who believe that immigrant competition hurts them, regardless of what the studies say, we're going to miss the boat and we're not going to get this right."
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