Q&A: Business coalition backs pro-immigrant legislation

Andrew Tarsy says group backing Safe Communities Act

THREE YEARS into the presidency of Donald Trump, the main ways immigrants can remain in the country legally – through a protected status or with one of over 160 types of visas – have changed significantly. From new or higher fees, to adjustments in what paperwork must be submitted, to the complete rescinding of some immigration statuses (like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which impacts young adult immigrants brought to the country illegally as children), the legal landscape of who can stay and who must go has changed.

These changes have had a strong impact on the businesses that employ immigrants. The changes have affected who can retain work authorization to stay on their job, altered what employers must do to keep immigrant employees, and created uncertainty about employees being deported because of a sudden change in federal policy.

The Massachusetts Business Immigration Coalition, headed by its co-founder and coordinator, Andrew Tarsy, is a group of employers pushing back on restrictive immigration policies. Coalition members recently testified in support of a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. On Monday, they plan to testify on Beacon Hill in support of the Safe Communities Act, which would bar police across the state from acting as immigration enforcement officers and stop making inquiries about immigration status.

I talked to Tarsy by phone, who was at his office in Cambridge, where he is the principal and founder of public affairs firm Emblem Strategic.

COMMONWEALTH: Who makes up the coalition?

ANDREW TARSY: Tom O’Brien of HYM Investment Group and Eva Millona of the Massachusetts Immigration and Advocacy Coalition are our co-chairs. It’s a project, so not its own 501(c)(3). Basically, we’re a group of businesses of all sizes and across all sectors who have a shared belief that we’re in need of sensible policies at the federal and state levels that enable hard working and talented people from around the world to find a home in Massachusetts. It’s a business voice for sensible immigration policies that impact foreign-born workers in our state.

CW: Who are the members of the coalition?

TARSY: We’ve got executives at well-known companies like TripAdvisor, Eastern Bank, Tres Islas Restaurant Group, Bain Company, and lesser known companies that are niche players in different parts of the economy. From food services to architecture, construction, pharmaceuticals, biotech, and technology services, the list goes on.

CW: How do you recruit members?

TARSY: We go out, explain what we’re doing, and ask them if immigration issues are affecting their business. When we ask that question, the answer is generally yes, the policies that exist are hurting my business, my employees, and I’d like to participate in doing something better. An example is Larry O’Toole, the CEO of Gentle Giant Moving Co. Larry told me 10 different ways his business was vulnerable because the government has failed to value the workforce he depends on. He has seen firsthand the anxiety and confusion that surrounds the immigrant workforce. And he wanted to make it better.

CW: Did the idea for the coalition start during the Trump administration?

TARSY: The first meeting we had as a group was in August 2018. We asked what issues are most important to business leaders present. The discussion didn’t take any more prompting than that. Sen. [Edward] Markey was there to help us understand what was going on with the government at that time. And it was born. It took a little while to develop an agenda and round up additional members.

CW: There’s a lot of different policies you guys could have supported. How did you make the decisions on what to look at?

TARSY: Massachusetts has a brand around the world as the center for innovation. We need the smartest people, the hardest-working people, to run this economy. We don’t make widgets here. We make sophisticated and complex technologies and products. In order to stay in the global lead, we need people.

CW: What kind of people?

TARSY: It’s just as important to have health care workers who require one kind of visa as having laboratory scientists who require a totally different one. For construction to work, we need exotic skillsets and we need people with skills to put the buildings up with their own hands and operate the machinery you need to put a skyscraper or new housing together. It’s all of them. The business leaders in this coalition are rejecting that dichotomy. They’re saying we need market forces to drive the available labor market. Right now, the federal government is making it hard for businesses to find the workers they need.

CW: You hear about Cape Cod businesses having trouble finding seasonal workers every summer. What about businesses in other parts of Massachusetts?

TARSY: It’s across the board. I was told there are 1,300 HVAC positions open in the Greater Boston area. Gentle Giant needs truck drivers. One Way Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in immigrant-owned businesses, needs founders. There’s a fear that we won’t get people in to drive our trucks and we won’t get people in to start companies.

CW: Any examples where the travel ban or limitations on H-1B visas have hurt a specific business in Massachusetts?

TARSY: FirstLight Home Care is one of our member companies that has seen a dramatic shift in their applicant pool because some potential workers from some nationalities aren’t here. The TPS [temporary protected status] issue, for example, hovers over people who are Salvadoran, Haitian, and other nationalities who aren’t sure on what day it will be decided if they can stay or go.

That’s after decades of being in Massachusetts raising families, building businesses, buying homes. It’s certainly the case with TPS having that effect. H-1B visas are hard to get. There’s a whole challenge for seasonal workers as well.

CW: What has the response of politicians been?

 TARSY: We get treated in the State House like water in the desert. When businesses come into the State House and say that these are not just humanitarian concerns, but they’re also economic and business concerns, we get a different kind of attention.

CW: Do you think lawmakers take businesses more seriously?

TARSY: They don’t take us more seriously. It’s been hard-working advocacy groups doing serious policy work for years. But they haven’t been as effective in making the business case. Now we’re making it. That resonates differently with legislators.

CW: Have you seen anything come to fruition that the business coalition has worked on?

TARSY: There were a number of initiatives adopted as part of the budget– a big one was resources for English courses to be made available to the public. The truth is there’s a long wait in much of Massachusetts for someone who wants to learn English. We spend a lot of time and energy in this country talking about how we want everyone to learn English, but we don’t make it very easy for them to take classes. We were glad to support the governor in signing that provision.

Another creates a pathway to allow foreign-trained medical professionals to work in their field. It’s difficult if you’re a doctor or a dentist for instance. It should be, because we don’t want people who aren’t qualified. But there’s a middle ground there that would allow foreign-trained professionals to get working sooner. Then they will become productive citizens or residents earning higher wages and contributing more to the tax base. The governor committed to a process of studying options that will produce a pathway sometime next year. That’s a real win.

CW: Is this coalition the first of its kind? Have you heard of others in other states?

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

TARSY: There are robust business coalitions stepping up in Illinois, Texas, Colorado, and Florida that I’m aware of. We’re in touch with them all. We’re seeing the impact of the way they make the business case on the policy issues. It’s significant. We think that the business coalition in Illinois may have been the reason why they got the driver’s license bill passed there with a bipartisan legislative result. It was understood to be a good thing for the economy. We’d like to make that impression here. This is not political, it’s about economics. But it gets political really fast. You’re talking about human beings.

Following publication of this story, the legislative hearing for the Safe Communities Act was postponed due to weather conditions.