Opinions

U.S. travel industry supports immigration reform

Arne Sorenson is chief executive of Marriott.

As Congress leaves Washington for its extended August recess, it feels like immigration reform efforts are succumbing to a slow death, and that is bad news for businesses such as Marriott, for the country and probably for the Republican Party. In June, the Senate rallied to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that would greatly enhance growth prospects for the travel industry and the overall economy. More than a month later, members of the House are promising only protracted, piece-meal consideration of the issue. I hope that chamber will not let this chance for meaningful and holistic immigration reform slip away.

Congress’s failure to act on immigration would maintain an unproductive status quo and deny countless U.S. companies — and their employees — a much-needed economic boost.

The hospitality sector is integrally connected to the nation’s immigration system because it dictates our ability to welcome international visitors to U.S. destinations. According to U.S. Travel Association research, more than 1 billion people worldwide traveled outside their home countries last yeara historic first. Unfortunately, while global long-haul travel increased 52 percent over the past decade, U.S. long-haul arrivals increased just 2 percent.

Much of this is attributable to dated or under-resourced tourist and business visa processing. The United States must be better prepared to take advantage of the explosive growth in travel demand building in emerging economies. While the Obama administration has made remarkable improvements to the visa application process in several critical markets, particularly Brazil and China, legislation is needed to build on these gains.

The Senate took an important step toward capturing a greater share of the global travel market by embedding the Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Actin its immigration measure. This legislation would expand the Visa Waiver Program, encourage extended travel from Canada, and reduce visa interview wait times at U.S. consulates through benchmarks and a pilot videoconferencing program. The Senate also increased Customs and Border Protection staffing at high-volume international airports, which have experienced long customs lines this summer — and left many visitors with undesirable first impressions of the United States. The bill also takes critical steps to ensure that visitors on temporary visas are exiting the country as required.

The House would do well to take up these pro-travel measures, including HR 1354, the version of the JOLT Act introduced by Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) that has more than 60 bipartisan co-sponsors. The payoff will come quickly. The travel industry anticipates an additional $2 billion in spending this year by new Taiwanese visitors as a result of their country’s addition to the Visa Waiver Program last fall.

Adding larger partners offers even more encouraging results: The U.S. Travel Association estimates that JOLT would facilitate the arrival of nearly 100 million visitors by 2020, an incremental increase of 33 million entries over last year that would support 1.3 million new domestic jobs.

Growth in travel and tourism also presents an opportunity for advances in the U.S. workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the travel industry added 22,600 jobs in June, 12 percent of the national increase in non-farm work. Since 2010, the travel industry has been a bright spot in our slow national recovery, adding almost half a million jobs and outpacing employment growth in the rest of the private sector by 25 percent.

Given this growth, however, our industry anticipates the reemergence of pre-recession challenges in staffing properties in certain seasonal resort markets. Even with the national unemployment rate at a stubbornly high 7.4 percent, many Americans are not interested in some of the entry-level positions we offer. At large hotels at ski resorts such as Aspen or southwest Florida beaches with small local populations, we struggle to find sufficient numbers of people willing to take labor-intensive jobs during peak season.

Streamlining the legal channels for entering this country and joining the U.S. workforce would provide a serious boost to productivity. The Senate bill lays that groundwork through its new W visa program and improvements to existing work-visa programs, with protective wage rules for both immigrant and domestic workers. Our industry welcomes the prospect of a quick and accurate electronic employment verification system backed by a single uniform set of federal penalties and protections ensuring compliance. The legal immigration system must function sufficiently to help us fill jobs that Americans are unwilling or unable to fill, or it will handicap our growth indefinitely.

In hotels across the United States I have met thousands of Marriott associates, from housekeepers to general managers, who immigrated to this country to pursue the American dream. Across the spectrum of the labor pool, the United States continues to be a magnet for the best, brightest and most ambitious people from around the world. We cannot lose that distinction and the competitive advantage it provides by forgetting our values or ignoring reality. Namely, we must deal fairly with the 11 million people in this country who lack legal status. They are not leaving, and we must allow them to become taxpaying participants in our society and economy.

Moving forward, our country will grow faster if we have a smart immigration system that better accommodates family needs and market demands.

 
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